For reasons easily guessed, the Drama Club at New Paltz High School skipped its traditional fall-semester dramatic production in 2020. The 2021 spring musical – Sondheim’s Into the Woods – did go on, back in May, although the students had to project their acting and singing through clear plastic masks to reach a socially distanced audience.
Now the young thespians are gearing up for their first autumnal production since The Journey to Home in 2019, and once again they’ll have to be masked. But enthusiasm is running high – in part, no doubt, because this year’s play is a no-holds-barred farcical comedy, titled The Alibis. “I really like this show; it’s fun,” says freshman Finn Lochard, who plays a French chef who isn’t really French, and is one of seven suspects in the murder of an eccentric billionaire.
Subtitled Eight Short Comedies about Crime, The Alibis is a newly published play literally written by committee. Eight playwrights affiliated with the Playscripts publishing group were presented with what sounds like one of the most tantalizing writing prompts ever: Create a ten-minute playlet in which a murder suspect enacts what they were actually doing instead at the time of the murder. The caveat is that each suspect must have been committing a different, apparently unrelated crime. Other than that, the scenarios can be as absurd as the author wishes.
Yes, there is a pattern to it all, and a surprise twist ending worthy of such classic attempts to freshen up the tired tropes of the drawing-room murder mystery as Murder on the Orient Express, Sleuth or A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. But what makes this play especially unusual is the fact that it’s left up to the troupe performing it to assemble its own framing device, in which the murder is revealed, the suspects introduced and interrogated by a “clueless” detective and the solution divulged. “Designed as a flexible build-your-own mystery, you can perform these plays in any combination and thread them together with optional interludes,” say the instructions published by Playscripts.
Indeed, the NPHS Drama Club’s advisor and the play’s director, Nancy Owen, decided to leave one skit out: Mill Noir by Jonathan Dorf. The group will be performing Attempted Theft of a Confection from a Minor by Patrick Greene, Davina Arlington Wants Revenge by Tyler Dwiggins, Hamster Murder! by Ian McWethy, Badger Poison by Kathryn Funkhouser, In Case of Fish by Jason Pizzarello, The Incredible Season Finale by Mora V. Harris and I Did It! by Carrie McCrossen. “Some rely heavily on verbal humor; some are more physical,” says Owen. “They’re all just so funny in their own way.”
The playwrights took their creative license seriously, it seems, as the playlets feature such bizarre plot elements as a butler who is, unusually, not a suspect, but whose secret passion is karaoke; a frozen hamster mistaken for an ice cream sandwich; and “a giant green oozing mole” on the neck of one of the characters. Sophomore Nick Kutzin portrays “a rich elderly billionaire who’s the nemesis of the person who’s been killed. He’s desperately trying to go to the murdered guy’s house to murder him, but then he finds a really bad mole on his neck and goes to the doctor.” Chaos ensues, and the would-be killer is sidetracked from his goal.
The structure of the play – the equivalent of an evening of one-acts – allows a cast of 36 their turns to shine, and also calls for some inventive staging. Josie Quinn, a junior who has done lighting and other backstage tech work in years past, assumed the role of stage manager this year, replacing a graduating senior. “There’s the drawing room on the left,” she explains, pointing out the cozy set where the detective will conduct the investigation and eventually reveal her conclusions, while the right side of the stage is readied for the next playlet. Lighting cues will be crucial in this production, as the action shifts to the right side of the stage where the suspects will act out their alibi stories – each in a different setting requiring a change of scenery. “We’ll have to work in the dark, moving furniture into position,” says Quinn.
It’s all part of the mechanics behind the magic that theater can weave, inviting the audience to suspend disbelief and daily cares for a couple of hours. And in this case, wild humor should provide a tonic for difficult times. “Everything about this play is over-the-top,” says senior Anna Adams, who plays the deceased’s estranged sister, a “grande dame of the stage” whose vengeance involves stealing his sled (a nod to Rosebud in Citizen Kane, perhaps?). “I really like how dramatic she is.”
Ready for some laughs? Come see The Alibis at the New Paltz High School Auditorium this weekend. Curtain times are 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, November 12 and 13, with a 2 p.m. matinée on Sunday, November 14. The title of the show chosen for the 2022 spring musical will be announced at the Friday performance – a long-running NPHS tradition.
Tickets for this show will be sold at the door at $10 general admission, $8 for students and seniors. The box office will open 45 minutes before each performance. Attendees will be required to wear masks and observe socially distanced seating protocols.