STAGE REVIEW : 'Murder by Natural Causes' Has Clever Premise, but TV-Like Script

The good news about the Huntington Beach Playhouse's production of Tim Kelly's "Murder by Natural Causes" is that it's a sleek show, elegantly mounted and staged with a sure hand by Geoffrey Gread. The bad news is that it's a TV script that plays like a TV script; all the action is in the final 20 minutes after the last commercial break.

The premise is clever but all in the head: A rich and famous mentalist has a greedy, attractive and much younger wife who wants to do him in. The entire plot revolves around the question of whether the scheming wife can outwit her old man, an overworked fake who gets his psychic info from a private detective. It seems as if he is no match for her--or is he?

Act I is a plodding exposition that cries out for close-ups and visits to the refrigerator. If there were any real sexual energy between the schemers--Nancy Kernick as the wife and Gary Kernick as her lover--the whole thing would move more breathlessly. Instead, we get to see Gary Kernick suddenly stripped to his black bikini undershorts, an event so shocking and out-of-place that it garnered the most vocal audience reaction of the night, a loud "Well, well, well!"

The first two-thirds of the play relies heavily upon the charm of the leading lady, but Nancy Kernick has left charm completely out of her performance. She plays the would-be murderess and seductress extraordinaire with a flat grin and a swagger.

The last third picks up partly because of the plot twists piling together, and partly because of Joshua Kaye's portrayal of the mentalist. He hands in a comparatively rich performance as a man with plenty of cards still up his sleeve.

The supporting players are uniformly good and very well cast. Gread is a director who shows promise. But "Murder by Natural Causes" is a script only for viewers who are too tired to turn off the boob-tube and read a real murder mystery.

'MURDER BY NATURAL CAUSES'

A Huntington Beach Playhouse's production of Tim Kelly's murder mystery. Directed by Geoffrey Gread. With Gary Kernick, Nancy Kernick, Joshua Kaye, Tracy Godfrey, Christina Carden, Donna Lee Taylor, Ron Taylor and Lynne Tavernetti. Set by Marin G. Ackermann. Lighting by Bob Ashby. Sound by Geoffrey Gread. Plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through June 9, at Gisler School, 12141 Strathmoor Lane, Huntington Beach. Tickets: $6 to $8. Information: (714) 832-1405.

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