Georgia Ensemble Theater’s production of the comedy thriller is on stage at Roswell Cultural Arts Center through March 5, directed by Topher Payne.
Actress Parris Sarter, who did great work last year in bootycandy At Actor’s Express and has turned in strong performances for years around Atlanta, leads the ensemble as Mary, a divorced librarian who begins to suspect that her best friend’s creepy new boyfriend is a serial killer.
This solid premise has fueled many comedies before, from So I Married an Ax Murderer to Only murders in the building. The MacLeod script treats the mystery at its center as largely beside the point, wanting only the flavor of the genre without the dangerous stakes, which is a disappointment. Well-crafted mysteries compel their audience to participate in the guessing game at the center, playing along with the detectives. Women in Jeopardy doesn’t really do that.
There is a murder mystery. It has a solution. But the audience isn’t given the chance to play along and figure it out. Still, the situation lends itself to some good laughs.
As the play opens, Mary and her friend Jo (Valeka Jessica) meet Jackson Scull (Tony Larkin), a dentist who has recently started dating their cheerful, unlucky-in-love friend Liz (Stacy Melich).
Liz is largely oblivious to the seriously alarming weirdness of Jackson, whose hygienist recently disappeared without a trace, but Mary and Jo are immediately suspicious of the unsettling stranger. When they discover Liz intends to send her teen daughter Amanda (Karastyn Bibb in the performance attended for review, alternating with Maggie Gilroy) on a camping trip alone with the man, Mary starts amateur sleuthing to prevent further tragedy.
She eventually takes her suspicions to a police detective, also played by Larkin, and Amanda’s goofy skier ex-boyfriend Trenner (Tommy Sullivan-Lovett). Both of these characters only bring Mary more romantic hijinks, rather than assistance.
Eventually, the women of Women in Jeopardy realize they have to save themselves.
The cast of this production has terrific chemistry. Sarter makes Mary into a wary, savvy protagonist you want good things for and the smartest woman in the room. The friendship between Jessica’s and Melich’s characters feels lived-in and comfortable, particularly in scenes where the women are alone with each other and able to speak deeper truths.
Melich gives Liz a charming loneliness mixed with optimism, as though finding herself in a new relationship is a pleasant romantic surprise after years of disappointment.
Jessica, whose work in last year’s Intimate Apparel was remarkable, doesn’t get as much of a showcase here because Jo is underwritten with less stage time. But when Jessica is onstage, she’s compelling, playing Jo as no-nonsense and blunt.
Larkin, in the dual role, is hilarious as the suspicious dentist, embodying the character with an exaggerated, awkward physicality. Jackson always appears with a puffed-up chest and arms that hang stiffly and unnaturally. His presence is immediately distinctive and alarming. Thus, when Larkin plays the detective with a more natural, relaxed and flirtatious ease, the audience can immediately distinguish the characters’ differences. It’s very strong work.
Sullivan-Lovett’s work is also winning, stealing nearly every scene Trenner is in by giving the character a teenage boy’s single-minded id. Trenner is all swagger and impatient desire, occasionally in lust but often just wanting snacks and a mother figure. Sullivan-Lovett makes strong choices throughout the show, and it results in Trenner becoming lovable and individual, instead of grating. Bibb’s take on Amanda was also charming, playing up the character’s naivete and entitlement.
As a director, Payne is great with actors and highlighting comedy because his instincts as a writer and performer are so strong.
Touches in style and design give the show a Hitchcock flavor as well. Scenes are intercut with moments of characters watching old thrillers on TV, giving the audience a glimpse into their inner lives. Outside of the story, a projected opening title sequence designed by Charlie James Cote opens the show, and it plays like a Saul Bass title designed out of the 1950s. During set changes, the crew is dressed like characters out of film noir to reinforce that aesthetic.
Jamie Bullins’ set has a minimalist feel for two-thirds of the show, building toward the camping trip finale where the set design is particularly cool and features a fun gag involving a tent.
Women in Jeopardy isn’t perfect, for the script doesn’t give all its genres equal strength. But it’s a satisfying, funny show.
Benjamin Carr, a member of the American Theater Critics Association, is an arts journalist and critic who has contributed to ArtsATL Since 2019. His plays have been produced at The Vineyard Theater in Manhattan, as part of the Samuel French Off-Off Broadway Short Play Festival, and the Center for the Puppetry Arts. His novel Impacted was published by The Story Plant in 2021.
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