Audiences love a good gasp induced by a shocking murder mystery. They also can't get enough of laughter induced by wacky characters and slapstick hi-jinks. Combine both worlds and you've got a popular genre known as the "murder mystery comedy."
Of course, just because you have all of those ingredients doesn't mean the play will actually be suspenseful, mysterious, or even funny. When you've got a bunch of dead bodies on stage, the comedy is going to get quite dark, so it takes a special sort of playwright to entwine the macabre with the moronic. Here are a few murder mystery comedies that get it spot on right:
The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940:
Written by John Bishop, this farcical who-dunnit does not take a Sherlock Holmes to reveal the villains. But it does create enough mayhem to leave you guessing about what will happen next. A snowstorm encroaches upon the estate of a wealthy philanthropist, a patron of the arts who has called together a famous songwriting team, an iconic director, a Broadway producer, and a pair of theater wannabes. They think that they are pitching the next musical extravaganza, when in fact, they have been summoned in order to discover the "Stagedoor Slasher," a madman (or mad-woman) who killed three chorus girl dancers, and just might kill again. Throw in some Nazi spies, cross dressing psychopaths, and a bumbling police detective, and you have a murder-mystery-comedy with vintage flair to boot.
The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 is available at Dramatists Play Service. (And for those of you actors who cannot sing and/or dance, don't worry. There's hardly any music and no choreography (except for some hysterical fight sequences).
The Bold, the Young, and the Murdered:
There must be something intrinsically amusing about actors dealing with creepy killers, because it's a popular theme found in comedic murder mysteries, including this one by Don Zolodis. Here's the brief synopsis provided by the publishers at Playscripts: The long-running soap opera "The Bold and the Young" is in its last days: its hunky hero has self-esteem issues, its villainous old man is more interested in soup, and its heroines are slightly psychopathic. The executive producer gives the squabbling cast an ultimatum: Complete one episode overnight or the show dies. But when the director ends up murdered, and other cast members start dropping like flies, it seems like his threat might actually come true. Can these misfits discover the murderer before the show is literally killed off?
I have not yet had the pleasure of watching this live on stage, but the script lends itself nicely to high school drama students and professional actors alike. There's something liberating about letting go and pouring on that soap opera cheesiness.
Mandate for Murder:
Pat Cook is the master of melodramatic comedies, and has the ability to crank out silly characters so fast, his computer keyboard must be smoking when he's done. (Tim Kelley woulds be proud!) Most Cook comedies are as funny as the playwright is prolific. Mandate for Murder, brought to you by Eldridge Plays, is no exception. And it's a blast for community theaters to perform, especially around election time. When a political aide is stabbed to death and the murder weapon is a knife pulled from a birthday cake, the crime solving characters have a lot of questions to ask. However, they aren't the only ones. The audience gets to interrogate the suspects too, not only that -- by the end of the evening, they get to vote in the election!
The Murder Room:
This comedic gem by Jack Sharkey brings back a ton of high school memories. We spent just as much time working on the set, with all of its trap doors and secret entrances, as we did working on the lines. Like other zany mysteries, this one features a wide variety of characters (nearly all of them should be played with English accents). My favorite part about this play is that, with all of its mix-ups and botched assassinations, by the end of the play the audience isn't sure if anyone has actually been killed off. It also pays homage to Sleuth in that characters who supposedly left the story line come back into the play wearing a clever disguise. This play is available at Samuel French.
The 39 Steps:
Imaginatively adapted from a Hitchcock classic, this comic masterpiece transcends the genre. For months I have been envious of my New Yorker friends, in particular the ones who have seen Broadways' comic hit, The 39 Steps. Whenever I talk to someone who has seen it, they rave about the non-stop comedy, the amazingly creative blocking, and the four versatile actors who play over one hundred characters. Directed by Maria Aitken and adapted for the stage by Peter Barlow, this farcical tribute to Hitchcock thrillers has been delighting audiences since 2005. Read the full review of this ingenious murder-mystery-comedy.