“A murder mystery novelist, a Wesleyan student, a detective, an old woman, a couple, and a train conductor walk into a police station.” It seems like the start of an elaborate joke, and, in fact, it is. It’s the setup for Second Stage’s most recent comedy, “Murder on the Beantown Express.” The punchline, as is slowly revealed over the course of the hour-and-fifteen-minute runtime, is a series of one-liners and a hyper-sexualized vending machine.
Hugo Kessler ’19 wrote and directed the comedic murder mystery, which ran at Music House from Nov. 3 through 5. As he mentioned during his introduction to the play, “Beantown” is meant to serve as a distraction from this year’s general national misery. Although never stunning the audience with its originality, Kessler’s work introduced plenty of red herrings and witty banter to keep everyone entertained.
The play begins with six people sitting together in a waiting room: Gertrude Perrybottom (Jack Warren ’20), Bobby Flint (Willis Weinstein ’20), Tony Doyle (Ariel Edelman ’20), Sylvia Banks (Ella Larsen ’20), Mara Ferraras (Sophie Elwood ’20), and Will Pierce (Eddie Chapman ’20). As the audience soon learns, all of them were on a train to Boston when a fellow passenger, Jackie Parks (Hannah Levin ’19), was murdered.
The plot progresses and confusion builds as the detective, Robert Belgrave (Charlie Barrett ’19), interrogates each of the characters. Bobby leads the other passengers in conducting their own investigation that parallels Detective Belgrave’s. Each character has a reason to be suspected. Whether it’s ties to a prominent New York City crime family, a background in intricate murders, or strange stories about the Perrybottoms, everyone has a backstory or character quirk that’s not to be trusted. However, the characters are mainly indifferent to the murder until it appears that they will personally be affected when another one of them is killed off. As expected from a play about murder, suspicion and paranoia develop more and more over time, alleviated by comedic interludes that highlight individual cast members’ talents.
On the technical front, the show was excellent. Daniel Gordon ’19 successfully designed a simple yet engaging set. The stage was divided into two rooms within the station: an interrogation room and a waiting room. Only two scenes occurred outside this set, which were portrayed with tables and chairs downstage. Mio Magee ’18 did a fantastic job with lighting design, appropriately setting the mood and adding drama when necessary or funny. Lisa Kravchenko ’19 also wowed with her makeup design, skillfully aging a freshman to an old woman.
Weinstein and Edelman stood out as a hilarious couple. They kept the audience members on their toes with their hysterical chemistry, delivering side-splitting one-liners such as out-of-place references to beekeeping and, perhaps most simply, a well-timed “Ew” as another character began to cough and die. Warren also achieved hilarity as Gertrude, an elderly woman whose rampant sexual desires and odd anecdotes enthralled the audience.
“Jack Warren’s comic timing was amazing,” said Maggie Rothberg ’20, who attended the show. “It consistently made me laugh out loud.”
With much of the cast being made up of first-year students, The Argus spoke to those involved in the production about the experience of working on a cast that was dominated by new talent.
“‘Beantown’ was a fantastic introduction to the Wesleyan theater scene for me,” Edelman wrote in an email to The Argus. “I’ve never been in a show that was entirely run by students before and it was super fun to be working with an original script. It really showed me the ingenuity of student theater.”
The difficulty in murder mystery parodies is finding the balance between mystery and parody. “Beantown” missed the mark a few times with the occasional bit of oddly timed humor during a more serious portion of the play. Still, there was certainly no predicting the plot of this wacky dramedy, which successfully held the audience’s attention for the duration of the production.
There were frequent references to Wesleyan or Kessler himself, with mocking mentions of Boger Hall’s new name and the movie “Hugo.” However, the humor that got the most laughs was based off the characters’ interactions with one another—or props—rather than allusions to concepts that weren’t on stage. The show also jokingly addressed serious issues within the U.S. film industry, garnering snaps of agreement from the audience.
Although almost entirely sticking to the murder mystery parody formula, the production was compelling throughout, even if not due to bewilderment with the many prominent bizarre elements. The play ends in a police station with a writer for The Post, Casey Jackson (Dan Bachman ’17), interviewing the murderer and throwing in a final twist just before the curtain.
Overall, “Murder on the Beantown Express” was worth seeing for the entertainment factor and the wonderful performances delivered by an enthusiastic cast. Second Stage now has productions due to be performed on most weekends for the rest of the semester, including “High School Musical” from Thursday, Nov. 10 until Saturday, Nov. 12. Although two murder mystery parodies this season have filled the quota (“The Storm of Mystery” was shown at Psi Upsilon from Oct. 6 through 8), it’s a genre worth continuing to explore in the future.