Mystery writers long ago figured out that one of the best occupations to write into a crime tale was the mystery writer himself because it deliciously upsets the balance of power. Typically, you have two masterminds playing cat and mouse: the murderer and the detective. The mystery writer becomes a third force and a wild card. Novels, films, and even a 1971 episode of Columbo have played this premise — so does the 1982 stage comedy Murder by the Book by Duncan Greenwood and Robert King, currently being staged by Circle Bar B Dinner Theatre. Here, the novelist, Selwyn Piper (David Couch), may or may not be involved in what is or is not a murder. The joke is ultimately on the audience, as the appearances are never quite what they seem. The playwrights themselves, Piper and upstart amateur detective Peter Fletcher (Dillon Yuhasz), all seem to be vying for the last word and the most authoritative frame of reference. “Did I invent you?” asks Piper of Fletcher at the showdown near the conclusion. The illusions are braided with plenty of laughs. Witty exchanges poke fun at marriage, money, mystery, and, of course, novelists.
Matthew LaVigne does a fine job with this directorial debut. In addition to David Couch, the cast includes two other Circle Bar B stalwarts: Susie Couch as Imogen Piper, the novelist’s estranged wife, and William York Hyde as John Douglas, the publisher. Circle Bar B newcomers include Yuhasz and Beverlee Weinsoff as Christine Scott, Selwyn’s secretary. The script’s tight exchanges are demanding, and the actors missed a few beats during this opening-weekend matinee, especially in the second half. To be sure, the first half, by contrast, really flew, owing especially to a brilliantly buoyant performance by Yuhasz. His unflappable and unpredictable Fletcher seemed to have stepped straight out of the imagination. He knows not only that brandy is the ideal drink to serve when you discover a body in your living room but also how to pause and break away to the audience when dishing up the corn. Weinsoff is winning, too, as the ingenuous secretary. And for longtime Circle Bar B fans, who does not relish seeing the Couches spar as the Pipers, politely trying to kill one another?
Murder by the Book plays through July 13. Get yourself up to the ranch, help yourself to the sumptuous summer barbecue, and then walk down to the theater and see if you can figure out whodunit.