A Mirthful Melodrama
by Bill Rodriguez, The Providence Phoenix
Damn you, George M. Cohan, Providence-born vaudevillian and composer of “Give My Regards to Broadway.” Damn you for penning the broadly humorous Seven Keys to Baldpate, which 2nd Story Theatre is presenting in a humdinger of a production (through February 23). You wrote one of the funniest and cleverest endings for a comedy that I’ve ever seen, but it’s such a delightful surprise that I can’t say a word more about it.
A menagerie of characters are paraded before us in this sometimes farcical, sometimes melodramatic, always entertaining comedy mystery, based on the novel of the same name by Earl Derr Biggers.
We get a handsome young protagonist and eventually a love interest for him, plus a corrupt politician and moneyed-interest corruptors. Throw in a femme fatale, a “ghost” wandering the countryside in a bed sheet, and assorted other denizens, and all that’s missing is a carnival barker. Fourteen characters are packed into less than an hour and a half, so the pace has to be pretty brisk. As directed by Ed Shea, they don’t bump each other and no one knocks over any furniture. (There are more plot holes to trip in than a soap opera has sobs, so distracting speed is essential.)
The set-up is simple. On a $10,000 bet, a writer spends a night in a shuttered hotel, challenged to write a 10,000-word story in eight hours. William Hallowell Magee (Ara Boghigian) makes a good living dashing off potboiler novels, but he has ambitions to be a serious writer, saying he wants “to get away from melodrama.” Hah! He’s come to the wrong place.
The Baldpate Inn, a summer tourist hotel, has been closed for the winter, but the owner (Brendan Macera) has arranged for it to be opened for Magee by its caretakers, Elijah Quimby and wife (Anthony Pesare, Liz Hallenbeck). Much is made of there being only one key, but people keep showing up and letting themselves in, thereby the title. (That’s not a mystery of much consequence. What I want to know is why they invariably lock up after themselves. Oh, I know! So the next person will have to use a key, or else the title wouldn’t make sense.)
Baldpate is perched atop a mountain too steep for winter driving, so everyone has to trudge up from the railroad station during a snowstorm. The first person to interrupt Magee is John Bland (Joe Henderson). But before they meet he makes a phone call and says he’s hiding money for the mayor in the hotel safe. Bland is a thug, so per union rules he pulls a gun on Magee and gets all homicidal when he sees he’s been overheard. But don’t worry. Our hero gets the upper hand in the first of many reversals of fortune.
Love interest Mary Norton (Erin Elliott), a corruption-sniffing newspaper reporter, enters next with her chaperone, Mrs. Rhodes (Joan Batting). For moral contrast, femme fatale Myra Thornhill (Tanya Anderson) shows up, all slinky and seductive. Her motives are pure, though, since she is trying to save her husband from ruin by those graft-grabbing politicians who cheated him out of $200,000, which the thug put in the safe. Colluding with her is Lou Max (Jeff DeSisto), minion of Mayor Jim Cargan (Jim Sullivan), who himself is in cahoots with railroad owner Thomas Hayden (Tom Roberts).
Strangely, several people know the combination of the safe —not only the thug and Myra, but the ragged local hermit, Peters (John Michael Richardson), the bed sheet ghost who has been trying to scare everyone away from the mountain. When these complicated characters aren’t crossing someone, they are double- or triple-crossing someone else. Not even Police Chief Jiggs Kennedy (Andrew Stigler) can be trusted, though his accompanying cop (Max Ponticelli) might be okay. But comeuppance is the rule. When someone asks the mayor, “What’ll we do, Cargan?” he replies, “No less than 10 years, I’m afraid.”
This year marks the 100th anniversary of Baldpate, and 2nd Story is presenting it mainly because it’s also the 100th anniversary of the theater’s building. Let’s all hope for another century of good theater and freedom from termites.