Theater Review: “The Butler Did It, Again” at Arena Players

The late Tim Kelly was a prolific playwright who caught the parody bug in the late 1970s. His “The Butler Did It” was a dumb, formulaic melodrama, in which all the detective stereotypes, and a few racial stereotypes, were tossed into a crowd-pleasing stew. Never taken very seriously as a play, the play nonetheless did well at the box office. Kelly followed up commercial success with two sequels – “The Butler Did It, Singing” (a musical, naturally) and “The Butler Did It, Again,” which premieres this month at Players Arena in Baltimore.

…more twists than a bowl of spaghetti.

Fans of crime novels and old movies will instantly recognize the characters in Kelly’s play as references to iconic figures in the genre. Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple is featured here as Mrs. Maple. Nick and Nora Charles (from the Thin Man series) are Rick and Laura Carlyle. There’s a black mashup private eye named Chandler Marlowe, all of whom are pretty predictable and effective. Kelly also delivers two problematic characters, in the form of Louie Fan (a Charlie Chan clone) and Tony Tallchief (a Native American detective). Tallchief appears more or less like a cowboy-like hero, managing to avoid cultural tropes. Yet, “the American Indian,” as he is called, presents a problem in the play. Worse still is the portrayal of Louie Fan, a character whose lines consist entirely of broken “Confucius say”. The style is obviously pulled straight from 80s movies, which featured non-Asian actors delivering those red-and-yellow-faced stereotypes. The practice was terrible, but accepted at the time. Whether it was still accepted when Kelly wrote his plays 40 years later is highly doubtful. This is certainly not acceptable in 2022.

That said, Arena Players management enjoyed pre-pandemic box office success with the show’s first play, and brought back that production’s director and cast for one of the sequels here. In “…Again”, we meet Kelly’s team of mystery writers in a swampy Louisiana estate called Spanish Moss. Ms. Maple is an editor who has invited her stable of novelists for a weekend of murder mystery. They are all required to attend dressed as the detective characters from their books, tasked with solving a staged murder. The whole affair has a “dark and stormy night” written all over it, and even features a pivotal appearance from local carnivore, Charlie the alligator. As one might guess, the frolic is interrupted by an actual murder, which entails more twists and turns than a bowl of spaghetti.

Aaron Androh directs a lively cast of enthusiastic and committed actors. As Mrs. Maple, Gina Lee is off-the-record and grandiose, proclaiming “I won’t tolerate real murder” when her plans go awry. Karen Chase is Maple’s assistant, Jane Doe (who swears that’s her real name). Rick and Laura are Alan Drew and Cynthia Forbes, completing the tribute with their own (stuffed) toy poodle. Jafar Vellines and John Carrington are the aforementioned Tallchief and Fan respectively, and James Williams is solidly sarcastic as the titular butler, Chips. A new author, Ruth Dice, is played with trustworthy pomp by Janette North. The no-frills lead investigator, Chandler Marlowe, is played with great skill by Eric Floyd. The role of mystery woman Linda Hayes is shared between Timeeka Addison and Linda Howard, and Mike L. Barrett is the confused Father White. The star of the cast is Khadijah Hameen as Mrs. Danvers. She consistently demonstrates a director’s sense of spacing and a stand-up’s sense of timing. Hameen completely owns the scene, even when his face is completely obscured by a huge wig.

The actors are clearly having a great time playing this comedy and, despite its serious issues, so are the audience.

Duration: 122 minutes with an intermission.

Warnings: racist stereotypes, handgun accessory.

“The Butler Did It, Again” runs through May 8, 2022 at Arena Players, 801 McCulloh Street, Baltimore, MD 21201. Tickets are available for purchase online. Customers are required to provide proof of vaccination and must remain masked.

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James C. Tibbs