Review: Lifeline’s “Busman’s Honeymoon”

The mystery stew of Busman’s Honeymoon

review by Paige Listerud

Following an explosion in the chimney, Lord Peter Wimsey (Peter Greenberg; right) enjoys a laugh at the expense of Bunter (Phil Timberlake; left; soot-smudged face), in Lifeline Theatre’s world premiere production of “Busman’s Honeymoon,” adapted by Frances Limoncelli, directed by Paul S. Holmquist, based on the classic mystery by Dorothy L. SayersFans of the Lord Peter Wimsey mystery series, by Dorothy L. Sayers, are sure to be delighted by the well-produced world premiere of Busman’s Honeymoon, adapted by Frances Limoncelli and directed by Paul S. Holmquist, both Jeff Award-winning ensemble members of Lifeline Theatre. This is the fourth in a line of Sayer’s Wimsey novels that Limoncelli has adapted for the stage at Lifeline; preceded by Gaudy Night in 2006, Strong Poison in 2004, and Whose Body in 2002. Peter Greenberg and Jenifer Tyler respectively reprise their roles as Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane from Gaudy Night, for which they both received Jeff nominations.

Wedding bells have finally rung for amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey (Peter Greenberg, left) and novelist Harriet Vane (Jenifer Tyler, right), but their quiet, country honeymoon is disrupted by a body found in the wine cellar, in Lifeline Theatre’s world premiere production of “Busman’s Honeymoon,” adapted by Frances Limoncelli, directed by Paul S. Homquist, based on the classic mystery by Dorothy L. Sayers Famous crime sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey and equally famous mystery novelist Harriet Vane escape the glare of publicity by eloping to their newly-purchased English country house. There, with the aid of Lord Wimsey’s long-suffering, perfectionist butler, Bunter, they amiably manage the blighted amenities of their run-down home and the intrusions of eccentric locals on their honeymoon, until murder disturbs everyone’s peace. Embroiling themselves in the mystery threatens their relationship, as much as the crime and their celebrity disrupt the English countryside.

This production is filled with nostalgia, not just for Sayers’ characters in particular, but also for all those crime-solving couples from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Elegant pairings of men and women who are just as likely to toss off a witticism as detect an overlooked clue, all while keeping the romance between them frothy and bubbling. Limoncelli’s adaptation, in accordance with Sayers’ novel, attempts to take Lord and Lady Wimsey to deeper levels. They struggle with intimacy, with keeping their integrity, with staying together while forces pull them apart, and withstand the darkness of bringing someone to execution, according with the law of the land.

Bunter (Phil Timberlake; left foreground; holding teacup) offers a toast to his employers, Lord Peter Wimsey (Peter Greenberg; center background) and Harriet Vane (Jenifer Tyler; right background; white dress), on their wedding night, in Lifeline Theatre’s world premiere production of “Busman’s Honeymoon,” adapted by Frances Limoncelli, directed by Paul S. Holmquist, based on the classic mystery by Dorothy L. Sayers There is much here that fans, familiar with both Sayers’ books and/or Lifeline’s series of adaptations, will thoroughly enjoy. The scenes of the rapacious press on Wimsey’s heels are fun and precise in their execution. The scene of the villagers bursting into song creates a much-needed sense of community. The vicar with his blunderbuss is a riot. The rant that Bunter (Phil Timberlake) breaks into over the disturbance of his lord’s delicate port is precious, as is the enmity that it sets up between him and Mrs. Ruddle (Millicent Hurley) from thereon.

People unfamiliar with this series will find enough that detracts from the complete enjoyment of the play, despite the yeoman-like work of the cast and crew.

It takes a deft hand, in writing or in acting, to shift from clever, lighthearted sleuthing to more serious melodrama without a hitch. The challenge is always to create a seamless whole in the characters’ progression, while building and maintaining suspense in resolving the murder.

Here is where one threatens to overweigh the other. Here is when the necessary introduction of stock mystery characters threatens to distract from the deeper development of the central love relationship on stage. Here is where one wonders whether too much is being crushed into an already 21/2 hour-long production. Here one questions whether another form, similar to a mystery television series, would better serve.

Lord Peter Wimsey (Peter Greenberg; left; standing on chair) expresses his joy at finally being wed to Harriet Vane (Jenifer Tyler; right), in Lifeline Theatre’s world premiere production of “Busman’s Honeymoon,” adapted by Frances Limoncelli, directed by Paul S. Holmquist, based on the classic mystery by Dorothy L. Sayers.What cannot be fulfilled through the structure of the play must be carried by the actor’s performances. Let it just be said that, across the board, these are stock provincial English characters. It is harder to play a stock character than one realistically written. So much of the actor’s performance relies on what is not contained in the script, which is by nature stereotypical, at least in such a predictable genre as mystery. The actor must make three-dimensional a two-dimensional and cliché figure, yet not exceed the boundaries of the character.

Still, these characters must be inhabited in order to keep them from seeming predictable or trite. While the entire cast is technically excellent and uniformly pulls off dialect, character intentions, and complex scene changes with aplomb, nothing replaces the performance that makes one believe that an actor is the gardener, is the jilted old maid, is the vicar, etc.

It’s very possible that in the course of the run each of the cast members will grow deeper connections to their characters and make them seem less superficial. It’s also quite likely that Greenberg and Tyler will better negotiate their characters’ shift between sleuthing with elegant charm to the graver, more precarious pursuit of truth and love.

Rating: «««

Info: Previews beginning Friday, May 1, 2009, opening Monday, May 11, 2009, and running until June 21, 2009. Lifeline Theatre is located at 6912 N. Glenwood Ave. Chicago, IL 60626. For tickets call the box office at 773-761-4477 or visit www.lifelinetheatre.com. Photos by Suzanne Plunkett.

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