If there’s one thing you can say about Vertigo Theatre, it’s that they know their audience, and know how to give them what they want. Might As Well Be Dead: A Nero Wolfe Mystery is a perfect example of a play that doesn’t push any boundaries, but is beautifully designed and executed. With a cast of Vertigo favourites and a classic story from the murder mystery canon, it ticks all the boxes for loyal fans.
Based on a classic novel that was adapted for TV in the 1980s but only recently for the stage (by playwright Joseph Goodrich, who was in attendance opening night), the story revolves around the epic character of Nero Wolfe — foodie, orchid-lover, and brilliant crime solver in the style of misanthropic Sherlock Holmes. Wolfe never leaves his New York brownstone, however, so the digging up of clues falls to his trusted assistant, everyman Archie Goodwin. The unusual pairing is the central conceit of the novels, and remains so in the play. This time, Wolfe takes on the case of missing person Paul Herold, only to locate his target under an assumed name (Peter Hays) and facing execution for a murder Wolfe believes he didn’t commit. Hays is being tight-lipped about the events surrounding the murder of businessman William Molloy, and it is assumed he is protecting the dead man’s wife (and Peter’s lover), Suki.
The tale really belongs to Archie Goodwin, as the narrator of the action and the most dynamic moving part, and Stafford Perry is an appealing and engaging guide to the story. Grant Linneberg is an imposing and imperious presence as the legendary Nero Wolfe, albeit with a few stumbles over names that fly by at a furious pace in the complex exposition that is required in order to condense the novel for the stage. I’ve missed David LeReaney on local stages while he’s been busy with TV work, and his frenetic Inspector Cramer is delightful. Like many in the cast, Sarah Wheeldon takes on dual roles here, the smaller of which is Wolfe’s frequent freelancer Dol Bonner, and she strikes exactly the right tone. The other key role that rounds out the regular cast from the novels is Wolfe’s chef, Fritz, and with Andy Curtis in that part, I’m sold — I want to see a series of Nero Wolfe plays at Vertigo with this same central cast.
The other characters are less fully realized, which perhaps shouldn’t be surprising given considerably less background in the source material compared to the core characters. Wheeldon is appropriately oblique as Suki Molloy, who may or may not have killed her husband, but Alex Cherovsky is a bit young and boisterous to be believable as the despairing Peter Hays, whose “I might as well be dead” provides the title of the play. Karen Johnson-Diamond, Arielle Rombough, Devon Dubnyk, Curtis and Cherovsky round out the large cast as various friends of Suki and suspects in the murder.
The structure of the play requires that the sedentary Wolfe’s brownstone be the canvas on which all other locations are played out, and Haysam Kadri’s expert and efficient staging executes this flawlessly. Narda McCarroll’s set and lighting design help to create everything from a jazz club to a busy New York street to a courthouse, with a seamless flow that is filmic in tone and redolent of noir without being a cliché. This is a fitting tribute to Wolfe’s creator, author Rex Stout, and a satisfying meal for Vertigo fans.
(Photo of Grant Linneberg and Stafford Perry courtesy Citrus Photography.)
Might As Well Be Dead: A Nero Wolfe Mystery runs at Vertigo Theatre until April 14.
Lori Montgomery is a former FFWD theatre critic who practices medicine to support her writing habit.