Darlene and The Guest Lecturer

Rated 3.0 Murder tends to liven things up. That’s one subtext shared by Darlene and The Guest Lecturer, two one-act comedies by A.R. Gurney currently running at the Thistle Dew Dessert Theatre.Gurney, who’s made a career of writing about middle-class couples, covers familiar ground with Darlene. Angela and Jim, a long-married suburban couple, puzzle over a note addressed to “Darlene” left on Angela’s car. Angela is seduced by the passionate letter. Jim finds it threatening and pornographic. Their different interpretations underscore the widening gap in their marriage. Actors Diane Goldman and Michael Wright have their work cut out for them in upholding Gurney’s dialogue, which strains credibility with forced cleverness. Goldman’s exaggerated gestures clash with Wright’s staid interpretation, giving the scene an uneven tone.

The Guest Lecturer follows with a satire on American theater. Mona, the director of a failing community playhouse, employs sex and violence to lure audiences to her guest-lecturer series. The Thistle Dew’s audience becomes the bloodthirsty lecture crowd, which the actors address directly. Wright reappears as the lecturer, a better role for his understated acting style. Sara Townsend deliberately overacts Mona, swooning with dramatic pretension, to good comedic effect. Gregg Collette injects much-needed energy as the playhouse’s blustery chairman of the board. It’s all underscored by Jeff Schulz, the onstage pianist whose facial expressions and musical interjections add welcome color.

Both plays hinge on murderous events, but neither generates the punch necessary to move from a clever setup into a transporting story. Though written in the 1990s, the material seems dated. The relationship between Angela, a housewife whose chief excitement is “going into town,” and her suit-and-tie husband, Jim, seems straight out of the 1950s. Similarly, when the guest lecturer finds his life threatened, his reaction is a wistful “What a jerk I’ve been!” Sometimes murder livens things up; sometimes not.