Curtains: Murder Among Friends at Tempe Little Theatre

Tempe Little Theatre was founded nearly 40 years ago (full disclosure: I've worked with them in three of those four decades, as a performer, an elected officer, a director who was paid a small stipend, and one who wasn't). Their bylaws-mandated preference to eschew a traditional community-based fundraising board of directors, along with official artistic directors (most of the time that I'm aware of, anyway), gives the membership a freedom and spontaneity in programming decisions that they can't always back up with sufficient resources or strategy. (Yes, I also wrote a paper about them in grad school.)

All this means, for our purposes, is that Tempe Little Theatre is like a box of chocolates, and you know what they say about that. Local fave Bob Sorenson (who has actually made a living acting for some time now) got beaucoup experience under his belt as a leading man on the company's boards in the early 1980s. Despite the necessary catering to a stodgy subscriber base, TLT regularly throws the spotlight on less familiar scripts, too. And as recently as last season, they gave us a sparkling, virtuoso staging of the irreverent Urinetown. But as dizzying as the heights appear, the depths can be even more treacherous for the unwary theatergoer.

Tempe Little Theatre's current production, Murder Among Friends, is a not a high-water mark. First, it's one of those mildly funny, remotely prurient urban whodunits from the 1970s that should be put out of its misery pronto, and not with a starter's pistol and fake blood. The first big twist is that somebody's bisexual.

The rest of the plot somehow grows increasingly, densely incomprehensible and insults the audience's intelligence at the same time. The most intriguing character is dead before intermission. Oh, and did I mention that the story centers on a Broadway actor and the people in his life? Make it stop.

Then there are the bizarrely unfortunate choices that linger in the mind: Why does the Manhattan apartment of the 15th wealthiest woman in the nation have walls that were apparently masking-taped together and sponge-painted by five blindfolded Cake Wrecks decorators? (Which would be fine -- I understand low-budget -- if the set weren't visually arresting to the point of inducing nausea.) Why does a man who's displaying postcoital full-backal nudity (simulated, for all I can tell) immediately put on his tuxedo trousers and wear them commando for the rest of New Year's Eve? (Well, maybe his undershorts are supposed to be perfectly aligned inside the pants. Is that where you guys keep them during sex?) Why can't I tell whether the producer's wife wants to pee or snort cocaine when she says she wants to "powder her nose"?

From what I can puzzle out, either the horrible desires that drive these characters are unknown to the cast and director or, just as likely, the motives are so stupid and pointless, as written, that they're nigh on impossible to play. Sometimes the characters are lying. Sometimes they're pretending. But because one character is an actor, and they're all played by perhaps not the world's best actors, it's all too meta.

Now, I did laugh a few times. Actor Jack White is a pearl among huge, flashy cubic zirconia as Marshall -- his low-key, sardonic demeanor seems lifted from another play altogether. The people who sat near me, on the other hand, were apparently easily entertained by attractive people who remember their lines. If that's enough for you, you should catch this show, absolutely.

Murder Among Friends runs through February 22 in the studio theater at Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 West Rio Salado Parkway. Tickets are $18 to $20. Call 480-350-2822 or click here to order.