Opening Nights: Gaudy Night

An over-quaint English mystery.

Leaving the theater after the show, I overheard a woman say exactly what I'd been thinking about this treatment of Dorothy L. Sayers' 1935 detective novel: "They certainly did move a lot of furniture around." It's hard to imagine why Taproot chose to produce the piece, which is as bloated and innocuous as a manatee. Despite a good cast and dandy lighting by Roberta Russell, this campus mystery tale feels over-quaint and under-relevant—essentially like all the other old Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries from English TV. Frances Limoncelli's recent adaptation breaks the story into dozens of mini-scenes, some just one beat long. Between them, there is indeed much rearranging of furniture in the darkness, accompanied by elegantly off-kilter interstitial music. Over two and a half hours, it's a tedious formula for a paltry payoff.

Returning to her alma mater for a reunion called Gaudy Night, Harriet (Alyson Scadron Branner) receives a poison-pen note, as do some faculty members. Though the menace never seems particularly violent or real, the mean words frighten and embarrass the lady academics (Pam Nolte, Kim Morris, Gretchen Douma, Nikki Visel, and Ruth McRee), into whose midst lands lovelorn diplomat Wimsey (the excellent Jeff Berryman), determined to protect Harriet. His romantic pursuit of her, and her reluctance to get attached, are more fun than the flimsy main plot. Branner plays it smart and straight in a role that could easily be overdone.

Russell's lighting and Mark Lund's sound design artfully conjure lush extracurricular settings, like punting on the Isis River. Red herrings dodge about, the class system abrades, and feelings trip the deftest wit-wielders. But why director Scott Nolte chose to revive this deathly dated text is the biggest mystery. Sayers' original novel celebrated the capable ladies at a women's college, but now there are more women than men in academia (and almost as many in crime-fighting TV shows). A more relevant Gaudy Night update might've had Harriet save Wimsey instead—and with less furniture-shuffling.

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