MURDER BY THE BOOK, Drury Lane Theatre Evergreen Park. If acting alone could carry a show, this potboiler mystery by Duncan Greenwood and Robert King would be a big hit. David Mink has packed his production with terrific performers, then given them just enough guidance to guarantee they do a really smashing job. John Reeger, always great at playing flawed or pompous authority figures, is a hoot as the play's hero, Selwyn Piper, an infuriatingly egotistical mystery writer who becomes entwined in a plot to commit the perfect murder. And Kelley Hazen does a few star turns of her own as Piper's haughty harridan of an ex-wife, Imogen.
But their work is all for naught--this script is so weak, so full of predictable reversals, humorless witticisms, and cliched dialogue, that we stop caring about the characters long before intermission. Set in London in 1938, Murder by the Book strains mightily to emulate such suspense dramas as Anthony Shaffer's Sleuth, another play about an egocentric mystery writer in love with elaborate mind games. But Greenwood and King have neither Shaffer's craft nor his gift for vivid characters. Instead they give us stock comic types--the martinet, the bitch, the bumbling fool--and a plot that isn't funny enough to amuse and doesn't twist quite fast enough to be suspenseful. --Jack Helbig