Poor Evelyn Farrant. A sometime actor who hasn't worked in two years, Evelyn has been reduced to shoplifting at Fortnum's for his caviar and pate. When his landlady isn't dunning him for the rent, she's romancing him--a particularly unwelcome situation given his sexual orientation. And his despised twin brother Rupert, who inherited all their stepfather's considerable wealth, just keeps getting richer and richer.
What's an evil twin to do? Why, plot his brother's murder, of course. If his convoluted machinations go according to plan, Evelyn will not only eliminate his hatefully successful sibling, he will impersonate him. As Rupert, he will gain access to a vast fortune, not to mention the social cachet he has always craved. For the quintessentially hammy Evelyn, it's the role of a lifetime.
Set in 1936 Britain, on the eve of King Edward VIII's abdication, Gerald Moon's "Corpse!," the closer for International City Theatre's 1998 season at the Center Theater, is an intricately plotted divertissement with more twists and turns than the Tower of London.
Not exactly your standard whodunit--we know the culprit from the outset--this slapstick mystery is more of a "howdunit"--and that how, smartly executed by director Jules Aaron, is a hoot in every particular. A veteran director of considerable expertise, Aaron brings plenty of panache to the party, and while the result falls short of an intellectual epiphany, it's richly escapist.
Much of the humor derives from the temperamental chasm between the brothers, metaphorically indicated by Bradley Kaye's detailed set. The effusion of clutter in Evelyn's sordid Soho flat reflects Evelyn's own flamboyant impulsiveness, while Rupert's impersonally posh digs bespeak a comic bloodlessness.
Jacque Mellor is cast effectively against type as Evelyn's landlady, the salacious Mrs. McGee, whose deceptively trim, prim and tidy exterior conceals blowzy inclinations. Frank Ashmore is a mainstay of the production as Major Powell, the down-at-heels career criminal whom Evelyn enlists as his hit man--and fall guy. However, Ashmore is essentially the straight man of the piece, wisely ceding the stage to the bombastic Ron Campbell, who plays both Evelyn and Rupert.
Anyone who saw Campbell perform the three dozen or so characters in "The Thousandth Night (Monsieur Shaherazad)," Carol Wolf's one-man drama about a French actor's desperate efforts to perform his way out of a concentration camp, will know that Campbell's versatility is a given. His boundless capacity for silliness, however, is a revelation. Stuffy Rupert is the comedic model of propriety, while Evelyn is unrestrainedly fey. Evelyn strives to be suave, but is so transported by his own cleverness that he occasionally gives a lunatic little skip of glee. For Campbell, it's the signature tic of an inspired farceur.
"Corpse!," Center Theater, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Sept. 27. $28-$30. (562) 938-4128. Running time: 2 hours.