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The moment my partner realized The Late Edwina Black was a murder mystery, he set to work on the title. The last detective thriller we’d seen together was The Mystery of Irma Vep, an evening in which the protagonist’s anagrammatic name offered a broad hint about the blood-lust and stakes-through-the-heart territory the audience was about to enter. The name “Edwina Black” looked every bit as rearrangeable. Might something similar have been intended here?

Within seconds he’d found “wicked,” “clawed,” “balked,” “bilked,” “denial”—and, intriguingly, “Daniel”—hidden in “Edwina Black,” but always with a clutch of mismatched letters left over. By adding “late” he figured he could broaden his options, and just before the houselights dimmed (leaving a single chair spotlighted at the lip of the stage) he came up with the inelegant but suggestive “Back in a Lewd Tale.” Our attention shifted to the stage.

Wouldn’t you know, no sooner had a surly housekeeper (June Hansen) forbidden any sitting in that illuminated chair—”it was the mistress’s,” she intoned darkly, “no one else ever sat on it in her lifetime; no one should now”—than hints began to surface that something lewd might indeed be going on. The late Edwina’s husband, Gregory (Bill Largess), and her paid companion, Elizabeth (Laura Giannarelli), seemed to have a decidedly familiar master/servant relationship, evidenced by her feathery touch on his shoulder, and his habit of calling her “Miss Graham” when others were present, “Lisa” when they weren’t. When a visitor (Jack Vernon) revealed himself to be a detective, and Gregory and Lisa both jumped slightly, it was easy to assume that hanky-panky had had a role in the late Edwina’s demise.

At the first intermission, my partner redoubled his scribbling, finding “data bank,” “detectable,” “killed,” “celibate,” “abdicate,” “black death,” “bell the cat,” “balance wheel,” “wet blanket,” and “will take a bath” in the full title—alas, always with a scattering of superfluous letters. (Also “wetback” and “enchilada,” though those seemed clear red herrings in so British-accented an evening.) By this time he’d pretty much gathered that authors William Dinner and William Morum hadn’t had an anagrammatic thought in their heads, but he’d become absorbed by the exercise. Enough so that he returned to it intermittently during the second and third acts.

It would be hard to argue that he missed anything terribly crucial. The Late Edwina Black belongs to a species of formulaic entertainment that has pretty much abandoned the stage in the last few decades to take up residency on television, in the movies, and as cruise-ship entertainment. Authors Dinner and Morum were working in murder-mystery’s pre-Agatha Christie era, when the audience didn’t expect (and didn’t generally get) a great deal of cleverness between clues. As is customary, there’s a surprise for the close of each act, and a lot of dithering in between. Still, if the playwrights haven’t crafted a particularly distinguished example of the genre, they’ve been cagey enough about doling out their revelations in melodramatic bits and snatches that the show has some mild entertainment value.

What it also has at Washington Stage Guild (WSG) is a deliciously campy performance by Hansen, whose dour, obsessively loyal housekeeper owes a little something to Agnes Moorehead in Rebecca and even more to Vincent Price in The Raven. Appalled by any deviation from routine, she’s an uncompromising domestic dictator, balking at the idea of serving anything but beer after 9 p.m., ferociously protective of her late mistress’s memory, and skeptical about absolutely everyone’s motives. She says little, but when pressed makes every word count. When the detective, having already breached the peace by asking for tea after 9, again asks for tea in the morning, she freezes in her tracks, then turns slowly, fixes him in a baleful glare, and utters such an indignant, “Tea?…before lunch!?” that you quite expect the poor guy to melt.

Hansen’s championing of The Late Edwina Black (lobby photos of her as a girlish Lisa in a South African production in 1954 are worth seeking out) is evidently what got WSG to give the play a look, and you have to give her credit for making the most of the housekeeper’s scenery-chewing possibilities.

The evening would be more fun if the others had followed her lead, but in Kathy Feininger’s on-again off-again staging, they tend to hedge their bets, giving slightly oversize performances rather than going for broke. Largess doesn’t seem to realize that the husband’s oblivious one-dimensionality is what makes the character funny. Vernon settles for making the detective a stock inquisitor, though his lines suggest he’s a Columbo-ish oddball. And Giannarelli (now there’s a name for anagramming) manages to obscure the fact that she’s miscast in an ingenuish role, but not to make Lisa’s panic persuasive in the evening’s later stages.

The period elegance of William Pucilowsky’s costumes, Marianne Meadows’ ever-shifting illumination, and the simple, well-chosen props and furniture supplied by Elsie Jones are all assets. And when helped along by Tony Angelini’s niftily heavy-handed score (they don’t call this stuff melodrama for nothing) the evening did sometimes rise to the occasion. Not often enough, however, to entirely keep me from drifting into anagramland when Hansen wasn’t onstage. (I note for the record that Bill Largess’ name morphs neatly into “Sir Ball’s leg” or “sable grills” and would only need to exchange an “L” for an “A” to become “gerbil salsa.”)CP