By Arnold Wayne Jones Staff Critic

A country manor murder mystery and a cancer comedy-drama provide hit-and-miss entertainment

The patient has come to see a doctor because of several serious bruises. After learning the diagnosis, the patient has to renew family relationships that had atrophied over the last 20 years.

That could be the synopsis of any number of plays and movies that came out during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and early ’90s. But "Marvin’s Room," now onstage at the Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, has no gay characters in it. The patient is a woman with leukemia who had a falling out with her sister and now cares for her demented, dying father.

But make no mistake: "Marvin’s Room" belongs among that canon of gay plays that includes "The Normal Heart," "As Is" and others. Here’s why.

Like Tony Kushner and Craig Lucas, "Marvin" writer Scott McPherson treats AIDS metaphorically, but he does so without the element of fantasy that "Angels in America" and "Prelude to a Kiss" rely on. There is no mysterious body-switching, no heavenly interventions. It’s just someone dying of a terminal disease with no real chance at salvation, forced to confront a family that would prefer to forget her. There’s a revelation about a dead lover no one ever knew about, and the title character and location are never seen — kept out of sight with the hope it will just go away.

It’s on that level that "Marvin’s Room" succeeds; the play otherwise lacks structure and pacing. It has the tone of something feverishly written — many short scenes that don’t flow especially well into each other, but from the heart.

This production, as directed by Cynthia Hestand, has a frustrating static quality. Nearly half the scenes involve the characters sitting or lying next to each other, with very little action. Scott Kirkham’s dull set — it’s all black and white scenery and serviceable furniture — fails to add any visual flair.

McPherson does provide a surprising light touch. This may be the most comic play about cancer ever, a fact magnified when Nye Cooper is onstage. As a quack doctor, he turns a small part into a comedic jolt that makes the play far less treacly than the subject matter would suggest.

Cooper isn’t the only good one in the cast. Matt Savins projects a breezy likeability alongside intensity as a troubled teen; as his free-spirited mother, Sue Loncar is most effective in her best final scene, when her character goes from nagging mom to heartbroken parent. But Cindee Mayfield steals the show. She’s vulnerable and sad, funny and sweet by turn. Mayfield makes all the sitting and talking feel real.

"Marvin’s Room" may contain a dying man, but the parlor in "Whodunnit" is a murder scene. At least it is by the end of act 1, when the villain finally gets decapitated after threatening every other resident of a musty English countryside estate. But this drawing room comedy-thriller, written by "Sleuth" scribe Anthony Shaffer and now in a production at Theatre Three, almost dies before the victim.

I say "almost" because, despite an exposition-heavy first act, the play gets rolling in the second half. In the same way "Scream" reinvented the slasher film by deconstructing it — all the characters knew they were participants in a cut-’em-up — "Whodunnit" takes the creaky format of an Agatha Christie locked-room murder mystery and both mocks and mimics it. When the police inspector begins his investigation, he acknowledges all the gimmicks of the genre, as if solving the crime were just a game that will be resolved in the last chapter.

It’s a clever idea. The problem is, by intermission — before you realize what Shaffer is up to — you’re already miffed at its old-fashioned style and lame jokes. Redemption of a sort arrives when we learn of drag queens, a gay romance and when the killer is finally revealed. You leave the theater in a better mood than when you went in.

The problem remains with the first half of Shaffer’s script. Even actor Bob Hess, Dallas’ resident master of outrageous accents, can’t squeeze much humor out of the evil blackmailer Andreas Capodistriou, who all but twirls his moustache before tying a girl to the traintracks. When Hess becomes the detective and the unlikelihoods of act 1 reveal themselves as red herrings, he finally gets some good lines that don’t seem caricaturish.

Mark Shum and Carrie Bourn have the perfect stage temperaments to make such frothy nonsense work. Shum, a veteran of many Theatre Britain pantos, has the best English accent in the cast. Bourn, with her Cupid’s-bow lips and close-set eyes, is ideal for light comedies where she gets to overplay — she’s Dallas’ answer to Renee Zellweger.

"Marvin’s Room," presented by Contemporary Theatre of Dallas. Greenville Center for the Arts, 5601 Sears St. Through April 27. Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays–Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. $27–$32. 214-828-0094.
"Whodunnit," presented by Theatre Three. Through May 4. Thursdays, Sundays and April 7 at 7:30 p.m., Fridays–Saturdays at 8 p.m., weekend matinees at 2:30 p.m. $10–$40. 214-871-3300.
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