Play:        A Shot in the Dark

Group:        West End Players Guild

Venue:        Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 North Union

Dates:        March 27, 28, 29

Tickets:    $15 and $18; contact 314-367-0025

Story:    New police magistrate Paul Sevigne is handed his first case in Paris by chief inspector LaBlache.  It seems that Josefa Lantenay, a comely parlor maid for snobbish aristocrat Benjamin Beaurevers, was found unconscious in her bedroom with a gun in her hand and her lover, Beaurevers’ hot-tempered Spanish chauffeur, dead on the floor.  It’s an open-and-shut case to LaBlache and his trusty clerk, Morestan, but Sevigne isn’t so sure.  He steadfastly plugs along, interrogating first Josefa and then Beaurevers and his snooty wife.  So who is the real killer, and will justice be served?

    Beginning as a “boulevard comedy” written in 1960 by French playwright Marcel Achard titled L’Idiote, this frothy, three-act romp was adapted by once-blacklisted Hollywood writer Harry Kurnitz in 1961 into a Broadway play that starred William Shatner, Julie Harris and Walter Matthau.  Its greatest acclaim, though, was a 1964 movie adaptation by director Blake Edwards and screenwriter William Peter Blatty into a sequel to the hit movie, The Pink Panther.  Peter Sellers’ redoubtable Inspector Clouseau replaced Sevigne and The Pink Panther series of movie comedies was on its eccentric way.

Highlights:    Director Steve Callahan sticks to the seldom-seen traditional roots of this comic work and delivers the type of offbeat show that is the hallmark of the West End Players Guild.  He benefits from a delightful and consistently engaging performance by Emily Strembicki as the lovely and endearing chamber maid who enjoys the company of men in her own simple, straightforward fashion.  Strembicki has the looks to carry off the appearance of a sexy servant but also the expert comic touch, both in delivery and in expressions, to extract the most from Achard’s premise.

Other Info:    David Gibbs provides wonderful support as the dutiful clerk who is nonetheless smitten by Josefa’s beauty, demonstrating his own comic capabilities.  Robert Ashton and Leslie Sikes are in fine form as the lofty but leering Beaurevers, and Katie Puglisi has a nice turn as Sevigne’s watchful wife.  Newcomer Rich Kelly purposefully underplays Sevigne, keeping him consistently in the ‘straight man’ role that allows the comedy to flow from other characters, while Bob Harvey brings bombast and fluster to the part of Sevigne’s boss, hearkening back to Herbert Lom’s movie portrayal.  Henry Onken completes the cast as a prison guard.

    While it’s commendable that director Callahan and actor Kelly keep Sevigne subdued, it also underlines an essential problem in that it underscores the comic genius of Sellers, who created an eccentric character that left an indelible mark on film comedy, accentuated by Edwards’ deft directorial skills.  So, while this rendition of Kurnitz’s adaptation is sincere and skillful, it’s also too tame and timid when Strembicki is off stage, often trudging along at an overly languid pace.

    Costume designer Russell Bettlach provides the eye-popping dress for Josefa as well as some stately threads for the Beaurevers, and Renee Sevier-Monsey assembles a handsome set design to represent a mid-20th century French police office, adding her own effective lights, with some amusing props courtesy of Lynn Rathbone and a sound design by Chuck Lavazzi.

Rating:    A 3.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.