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Very Fine Use of a Grenade

Greg Howze and Kristen Tripp-Kelley in "Very Fine Use of a Grenade."

The press fodder for Road Less Traveled Productions’ premiere of Mark Witteveen’s new play, Very Fine Use of a Grenade, promises “a mystery that unfolds in the grand tradition of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal and Christopher Nolan’s Memento.” I would argue, instead, that all of these scripts owe a debt of inspiration to the grand tradition of J. B. Priestley, whose “time plays”—Dangerous Corner (1932), I Have Been Here Before (1937), Time and the Conways (1937), An Inspector Calls (1945)—set the standard for telling stories out of chronological order, and thereby illuminating the motivations of characters and highlighting life’s ironies.

Indeed, as a dark comedy with scenes organized in perfect reverse order, Witteveen’s play is most similar to another landmark play of the 1930s, Kaufman and Hart’s Merrily We Roll Along (1934). (And his opening with the mystery of a violent explosion is similar to the opening gunshot of Dangerous Corner.)

In each of these plays, the question that pulls us into the drama is, “What brought us to this point?” And in each instance, we travel backward in time for the answer.

Very Fine Use of a Grenade takes us to the entertainment industry, and in this regard the play is also haunted with echoes of two other scripts about the treachery and ambition in show business—Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve (1950), in which a Broadway fan worms her way into the inner circle of a star (a tale told mostly in flashbacks), and David Mamet’s Speed the Plow (1988), in which a Hollywood secretary tries to advance her own film career through deceit. Witteveen, too, deploys a manipulative young woman who yearns to rise from humble beginnings to propel his plot.

We begin in a horrible rural Indiana motel room. A strong-willed young woman named Lydia and a middle-aged man named Michael are preparing to make a hasty departure. Everyone in the play seems to want to escape something. It seems that Lydia and Michael have been in town to make a film. Michael is on the phone with the producer. There has been trouble. A third character, Gabriela, is implicated in some sort of mess.

Initially, Lydia speaks very little, but she is as tough as nails and obviously very much in control.

When Gabriela appears, she seems guileless. What has happened here?

As each scene progresses, we move backward in time. Each scene reveals a little more of the story, until finally, a sordid and deceitful plot is revealed in full.

Witteveen’s tale of treachery is great fun. His dialogue is smart and engaging. He has a talent for cynical humor and his darkly comical situations evolve with delightful ease. He is assisted by a first-rate cast: Renee Landrigan as willful Lydia; John Fredo as people-pleasing Michael; Kristen Tripp Kelley as trusting Gabriella; and Greg Howze as Ben Saunders, the screenwriter who turns out to be the weak link, a fraud whose secrets leave him vulnerable to a dangerous infiltrator.

Doug Zschiegner, who has directed this appealing production, has also provided a very fine set—a garish motel room with the walls cut away to reveal lighting for a movie set. Video by John Shotwell, projected onto an upstage scene, successfully evokes the Indiana town that everyone is so eager to escape—for various reasons.

For the most part, the reverse chronology works smartly and efficiently. We delight as each new piece of the puzzle falls neatly into place. At a few points, the tale is over-told. I don’t wish to give away the primary secret of the plot, but once the true identity and motivation of a killer is exposed, all that remains is to go through the motions. For me, all mystery comes to a halt with the appearance of a single work uniform—I’ll say no more about it.

In addition, it takes a great deal of time for us to move between scenes and the projections, which are at first amusing, begin to feel like a stalling tactic.

Any deficiencies, however, are far outweighed by the script’s great virtues. Miss Kelley never has an unbelievable moment, and gets terrific mileage out of a daft scene in which she is unwittingly drugged. Mr. Howze walks the delicate line of bravado and vulnerability that typifies every great fake. Mr. Fredo’s cheerful demeanor serves as a happy veneer for the churning waters beneath his character’s smile. Miss Landrigan is brilliant as the clear-sighted character who sees through everyone with the clarity of a psychic and precision of a trained assassin.

On the whole, Very Fine Use of a Grenade is intriguing and delightfully entertaining. The production continues through February 16.