It is not surprising that "Corpse!," playing at the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre's newly named Hahn Cosmopolitan Theatre through March 19, was written by an actor.
That is not because the central character in Gerald Moon's comedy-mystery is an actor and that the explanations for his psychopathic behavior often come down to insults hurled at him with glee: "It's an unfortunate profession . . . pretending to be other people."
It's because what this play is really about, after you sort out who is being set up to be killed by whom and why and when and where, is the charged theatrical atmosphere in which great character parts flourish.
It is also this very mannered atmosphere that the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre does best.
Tall, dark and very handsome Mike Timoney has the plum part, or rather parts, of the twin brothers who hate each other--a fact which the program, unfortunately, doesn't even try to hide by changing the actor's name next to one of the roles. It is to Timoney's credit that although he never fails to look good (thanks also to Nancy Jo Smith's costumes--an auspicious Gaslamp debut for her), he achieves the striking effect of making Evelyn, the poor but dapper actor brother, darkly magnetic. In contrast, Rupert is a wealthy white-bread-type entrepreneur with a taste for the early drawings of Van Gogh.
Still, there was a self-consciousness clinging to Timoney's performance on opening night that betrays an unfortunate lack of conviction in the motivation Evelyn has for wanting his brother dead. He doesn't quite let himself go when he talks about his brother's injuries to his mother--almost as if he hasn't yet figured out if he is supposed to play the speeches as a spoof or the real thing.
In contrast, Ron Richards surrenders himself to the part of Major Powell, the professional criminal Evelyn hires to carry out his crimes. Richards established himself as a versatile actor in two other Gaslamp Quarter Theatre productions last year: "The Last Good Moment of Lilly Baker" and "The Play's the Thing." Here his performance mesmerizes, stealing the show with a supercharged naturalness that crackles without ceasing. One misses him every time the brusque, light-fingered drunk with the Scottish accent leaves the stage.
A smaller, but still precious gem is Coralie Schatz's performance as the lascivious landlady who is willing to forgo Evelyn's rent for a few choice favors. The sight of this proper English lady sweetly singing "She has saucy eyes" in a tipsy off-key stupor is one that cries out for more of the same. Pity the same cannot be said for Michael Jude McMahon who seems to sleepwalk through the small but crucial part of Rupert's policeman-friend, Hawkins.
Will Simpson's generally solid direction drags when it comes to pacing, a problem which is exacerbated between the scenes: The wheels of justice grind slowly, but not as slowly as Robert Earl's revolving sets. Earl does manage to strike just the right desultory note with Evelyn's cramped and awry little space--one can imagine a man going crazy in there. And there are wonderful touches, like the ribbon of blue fire lapping at the pan of frying onions on the stove, that fill the theater with a sense of reality--and hunger.
But he is not as successful with the flip side that is Rupert's home. While Earl hits the points necessary to a moneyed environment, the set fails to rise above a wafer-thin elegance that suffers like a hasty make-up job under the glare of Matthew Cubitto's insufficiently subtle lighting.
The playwright does end the show a bit abruptly, rather like a dancer who, after a particularly strenuous exercise, is exhausted by his own inventiveness. But what Moon gives us are some appealing sets of funny and seductively serpentining dances of the sort that don't require a point other than the pleasure of capturing occasional flights of grace in motion.
"CORPSE!" By Gerald Moon. Director is Will Simpson. Sets by Robert Earl. Lighting by Matthew Cubitto. Sound by John Hauser. Costumes by Nancy Jo Smith. Stage manager is Rebecca Nachison. With Mike Timoney, Coralie Schatz, Ron Richards and Michael Jude McMahon. At 8 p.m., Wednesday-Saturday with Sunday matinees at 2 through March 19. At the Hahn Cosmopolitan Theatre, 444 4th Ave., San Diego.