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Review: Clue Makes the Comedy of Carnage Look Easy

The board game turned cult film is now testing its theatrical legs at Paper Mill Playhouse.

The cast of Clue at Paper Mill Playhouse.
(© Evan Zimmerman)

Nothing takes your mind off the life and death stakes of the world like a play with life and death stakes you can laugh at. Six people are dead by the end of Clue— a stage adaptation of the vintage Hasbro game that inspired the cult classic film, and that is now being produced at Paper Mill Playhouse. And it all goes down in a brisk 80 minutes of real-time whodunit comedy that reminds you what a breezy night of pure entertainment feels like.

Sandy Rustin adapts Jonathan Lynn's infinitely quotable screenplay, borrowing its most sparkling gems but fashioning her own piece in the spirit of classic ensemble farce (Hunter Foster and Eric Price are credited with contributing additional material). Synchronized door slams, pratfalls, and wide-eyed gasps should all be on your murder mystery bingo card. And while neither Rustin nor her director and collaborator Casey Hushion is reinventing the wheel, they have built a machine that happily hums along with no sign of the exertion it takes to make this brand of comedy look utterly effortless.

The premise of Clue is still as thin as the cardboard game. It's a classic dark and stormy night at the height of the Red Scare and a collection of characters mired in Washington, DC's most corrupt activities gather at Boddy Manor under mysterious pretenses. It turns out they're all being blackmailed by Mr. Boddy (Graham Stevens) for a variety of sordid reasons, and if they want to keep their secrets safe, they'll have to kill his butler, Wadsworth, with one of the weapons generously provided to them (knife, candlestick, rope, etc.). The lights go out, a murder is committed, but Boddy is the one who ends up dead. Thus begins this motley crew's wild-goose chase for the killer among them through the multi-roomed manse where absurdity rises as quickly as the body count.

Back (left to right): Michael Kostroff (Professor Plum), John Treacy Egan (Colonel Mustard), Alex Mandell (Mr. Green); Front (left to right): Sarah Hollis (Miss Scarlet), Donna English (Mrs. White), and Kathy Fitzgerald (Mrs. Peacock)
(© Evan Zimmerman)

Just as it was for the beloved film, Clue lives and dies (pun intended) by its ensemble. And back in 1985, that ensemble was blessed with some of the generation's greatest comedians: Tim Curry, Eileen Brennan, Madeline Kahn, Michael McKean, Martin Mull, Lesley Ann Warren, Christopher Lloyd. It was an unmatchable embarrassment of riches. So you might assume that any subsequent adaptation that tries to match it is playing a losing game.

And yet, no one in the Paper Mill cast appears to be in competition with their predecessors at all. Michael Kostroff (Professor Plum), John Treacy Egan (Colonel Mustard), Donna English (Mrs. White), Kathy Fitzgerald (Mrs. Peacock), Sarah Hollis (Miss Scarlet), Alex Mandell (Mr. Green), Isabelle McCalla (Yvette), and Mark Price (Wadsworth) all lean into their personal comedic styles and perform their roles with precision, confidence, and a mindset geared to the ensemble rather than any independent tour de force (a quality surely due to Hushion's egalitarian direction).

Mark Price (center) as Wadsworth with the company of Clue.
(© Evan Zimmerman)

Individual performances do still have their standout moments: Mandell brings both remarkable physicality and comedic flexibility to Mr. Green; Fitzgerald sends Mrs. Peacock over the top with her frenetic singsongy vocal affectation; and Price, as Wadsworth, delivers what can only be described as an audition for One Man, Two Guvnors at the show's climax. English also deserves special praise for taking on perhaps the biggest challenge of the entire production — delivering the most gif-ed line Madeline Kahn ever put to celluloid as if it's never been said before.

They all roam through set designer Lee Savage's luscious rendering of Boddy Manor, with surprise portals to more iconic Clue rooms than you would ever think could fit onstage. Also coloring in this world of slapstick homicide are composer Michael Holland's tiptoeing score that underlies much of the action (sound design by Matt Kraus); costume designer Jen Caprio's sleek interpretations of the classic Clue characters (fittingly accompanied by J. Jared Janas's personality-driven hair and wig design); and lighting designer Ryan J. O'Gara's melodramatic cues that arguably function as another character.

The original film famously premiered with three alternate endings, opening the door for the stage play to adopt an Edwin Drood-esque system of audience participation where every cast member is ready to play the murderer at a moment's notice. At the risk of dashing democratic dreams, I can share that Clue has not gone the Drood route. Instead, Rustin has settled on a single and hopefully satisfying ending that will please Clue newbies and disciples alike. In my opinion, nothing about this big reveal can really displease because psychological thrill isn't the name of the game. If red herrings and plot twists are taking up space in your consciousness, you're missing all the fun.

Clue runs through February 20 at Paper Mill Playhouse.
(© Evan Zimmerman)
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