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March 2nd, 2008

The Good Old Days

Last night, courtesy of an old friend from high school, we entered a lost world.

Well, not exactly lost, since it exists, and the people who inhabit it can find it whenever they like. But it certainly keeps itself to itself, quietly chugging along without much reference to the 21st Century or modern politics or much of anything else, really, except its own enjoyment. It's an amateur theatrical society, run by men who in their real lives are Rich Men, Doctors, Lawyers, and Indian Chiefs. It's been around since 1884.

The front of last night's program reads, right under the title of the play (Any Number Can Die, By Fred Carmichael):

One Hundred Twenty-Fourth Season

Three Thousand Five Hundred and Seventy-Seventh

Performance through Three Thousand Five Hundred Eighy-Ninth Performance

The Clubhouse

My friend's husband is Vice President. He has just retired from a career as Something Genuinely Grand in Newspapers. He played Hannibal Hix, the comic, bumbling detective who has learned everything he knows about detecting from The Complete Sherlock Holmes, which he clutches with increasing desperation as the offstage storm grows wilder and the secret passages multiply and the bodies pile up in the Lavender, Orchid, Olive, and Primrose rooms. He has a mane of wavy white curls, a Southwestern accent that could grease a muffin tin, and a remarkable sense of comic timing. He was great.

I don't know what the rest of the cast did in their daily lives (I suspect Roger Masters, the Dour Lawyer, of being a lawyer in real life. That, or Central Casting sent him), but they were all excellent, too. Of course, the play didn't require them to behave like real people. The play required them to act like stereotypes: "Mysterious Housekeeper" (Haitian division); "Madcap Heiress"; "Playboy Cad"; "Clean-Cut Reporter"; "Butler"; "Greedy Nouveau-Poor Relative and Deadbeat Husband". But they did it with lots of style, and a very fine appreciation of the stereotypes.

The play itself was written by one Fred Carmichael, who (according to the on-line program notes for a community theatre production of another of his plays), wrote over 50 of them between 1946 and 1975, mostly farces, mysteries, and comedies. Any Number Can Die is all three, a take-off of 20's country-house Christie-type mysteries set on an island off South Carolina and plentifully supplied with corpses, hooting owls, secret passages, hidden treasure, wills read at midnight, and sinister creeping figures with ropes. It was funny without being arch, good, workman-like silliness presented without a lot of winking and nodding at the audience, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

It was closing night, and everybody was dressed in black tie. Much of the audience consisted of the children (and possibly grandchildren) of the actors, so it was younger than you'd expect, and not as fashionable (although the jewels--when worn--were real). It was, I don't know, less self-conscious than I'd thought it would be, cozier, more down-at heel. The dishwasher overflowed and the buffet dinner (cooked by the actors' wives) still hadn't been put out when we left at 12:30. I had a long conversation with a young woman who goes to Arisia regularly, and whose favorite author is Neil Gaiman. Her father prefers Samuel R. Delaney.

It was quite an evening.

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