Review: Secondary Cause of Death by Sam Bass Community Theatre
by Michael Meigs


Maggie McGuinness as Lily, Veronica Prior as Cynthia Maple (image: SBCT)The Sam Bass players put their energy and ingenuity into Peter Gordon’s Secondary Cause of Death and I did get some smiles from it.  The Round Rock thespian crew under Lynn Beaver's direction were performing the equivalent of CPR on a piece that probably should have been selected for unfavorable triage at a much earlier date.


With this play the British playwright wrote the second in his “Inspector Pratt” trilogy, a follow-up to his Murdered to Death, done successfully last year at the Sam Bass Community Theatre.  That was a parody of the never-out-of-print-and-ever-popular Agatha Christie’s “Miss Marple” series of detective stories.  In addition to “Miss Joan Maple” played by Veronica Prior, the murder-in-the-mansion story featured Frank Benge as Inspector Pratt ( = in British slang, “idiot”), a sort of looming English version of Inspector Clouseau.  Richard Dodwell was the old chap retired colonel from India.  That play wound up in the classic confrontation in the drawing room, during which (spoiler alert!) Miss Maple herself was revealed to be the culprit and the colonel’s good wife went off to the loony bin.



Michelle Swain as Nurse Parsley, Frank Benge as Inspector Pratt (image: SBCT)
A general rule of thumb in the cinema is that follow-up pieces, the ones bearing those Roman numerals II, III, IV and so on, are not going to be as good as the originals.  The surprises of the initial story become familiar background, the thrill is gone, and one waits to see the ingenuity of the scriptwriters and the director.  Infrequently, it works – if one has the resources and the imagination of, say, George Lucas or of Gene Roddenberry and the fleet of creative teams that followed him.  Even the playwriting trio of Jones, Hope & Wooton managed it, because the antics of their insane Futrelle sisters have some outrageously silly things to say to us about contemporary small town Texas.  (Check out their newest in a Sam Bass exclusive in December.)

Peter Gordon doesn’t manage the hurdle.  For this Murdered to Death II he brings back Inspector Pratt and Frank Benge faithfully recreates the man’s confusion, mistakes with personal names, dim reasoning and enormous presence.  So far, so good. But Gordon is at a loss without Miss Marple – “Maple” in his parody – who was sent to gaol long-term in the previous piece.  So he dreams up “Cynthia Maple,” sister of the imprisoned, whose specialty is setting up pretend murder mysteries in private homes for weekends in the country.  Gordon wants to eat his cake and have it, too.  Although in this avatar Veronica Prior is earnest, well dressed and distressed, the device is clunky.  All the more so as pretend murders are replaced by real murders, taken for laughs.



Richard Dodwell as Cardew Longfellow (image: SBCT) 
Richard Dodwell plays both the Colonel and the red-caped hammy old thespian Cardew Longfellow brought along for the murder mystery play.  One or the other of them gets killed.




Ben Weaver as the Polish count/Nazi (image: SBCT)The show could have survived all that, but on top of that creaky structure Gordon loads a Polish count (excuse the spoiler or stop reading here) who is revealed to be a walking, stalking, foaming-at-the-mouth secret Nazi of the very worst panto stripe.  Ben Weaver always has an electric presence on stage and his cleverness with accents is astounding (tell me, could you successfully imitate a thick-tongued Nazi successfully imitating the elegant accent of faded Polish aristocracy?).  But oh my God, we get a Nazi strut suddenly possessing the man like a demon from hell, quickly explained away as the Pole’s German joke.


The set by Kevin Scholtes is superbly imagined and executed,  and costumes designed by Ronni Prior are sumptuous. I would kill -- almost -- for that two-breasted suit Ben Weaver was wearing, and I'm sure there would be takers for Lady Isadora's elegant red dress with the red-and-black feather boa.  Those 1939-era uniforms look as if they came straight out the wardrobe at Shepperton Studios.


Veronica Prior in Kevin Scholtes' set (image: SBCT)



Round Rock is lucky to have the dedicated, hard-working and almost always successful Sam Bass band of friends and artists, and they deserve support.  If you’re familiar with the Sam Bass theatre, by all means, turn out and smile.  If you’re not, well, wait until next time; Peter Gordon’s  Secondary Cause of Death isn’t an example of their best.


An enthusiastic, unsigned review at AustinOnStage, October 6


Click to view program excerpts for Secondary Cause of Death by Sam Bass Community Theatre

Click for cast bios from program



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Secondary Cause of Death
by Peter Gordon
Sam Bass Theatre Association

September 24 - October 16, 2010
Sam Bass Community Theatre
600 North Lee Street
Round Rock, TX, 78664