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Murder Squared at Ujima

Gary Earl Ross talks about his new play, opening this weekend at Ujima

As I speak to playwright Gary Earl Ross, he is transporting a dead body to the theater, driving his car on a rainy night. Not to worry, he assures me. “It’s a hands-free phone.”

That sums up the macabre, deadpan humor of Gary Earl Ross, who was weaned on a diet of mystery stories and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The “corpse,” of course, is a prop for his latest play, Murder Squared, which opens on Saturday. Ross describes this four-play anthology as celebration of the mystery story, with humor and dramatic twists and “an obvious homage to Alfred Hitchcock.”

An earlier Gary Earl Ross play, A Matter of Intent, won the Emanuel Fried Award at the Arties as the outstanding play of the season and was widely admired for its lead character, Temple Scott, an African-American woman attorney in Eisenhower-era Buffalo, New York (played by Lorna C. Hill), and for the psychological twists built on the personalities of highly imperfect people. The play would go on to win the prestigious Edgar Award for mystery writing.

Like A Matter of Intent, Murder Squared is also a look backward.

“I grew up reading mystery stories in school anthologies and mystery and science fiction collections and watching them on Hitchcock Presents and the Twilight Zone,” says Ross. “My mother got me into it. I remember sitting on the sofa watching the television with my brother and my cousins and my mother and aunt.”

Ross especially enjoyed the way that Alfred Hitchcock would make humorous comments about the stories he was presenting, taking a comical look at murder and mystery, or presenting improbable epilogues to the narrative just concluded. At the time, it never occurred to young Gary that Hitchcock was often doing this to elude television censors who did not look favorably on stories in which murderers went unpunished. He has attempted to recapture that sense of fun and comedy in Murder Squared.

“Rod Serling seldom went for the comical,” recalls Ross. “The Twilight Zone was eerie and serious. Hitchcock would poke fun. I hope I’ve written four fun pieces. Murder Squared is a collection of four stories. None is adapted from the television show; I wrote all four. I had previously published two of them, and one started out as a radio script.”

Ross himself will play the role of “the host,” a takeoff on the Rod Serling/Alfred Hitchcock narrative that accompanied the television anthology shows.

“There is a photograph of me as a boy, sitting in a rocking chair in a sweater vest and tie, with our Westinghouse television in the background,” explains Ross. “I’ve got a pipe in my mouth. The host in Murder Squared will be a riff on that picture, coupled with the Hitchcock humor, complete with the bad puns and deadpan delivery. It is not an imitation of Hitchcock—though we were doing that at one point, with another actor. And there will be an epilogue.” (You can see the photograph on his website: ).

Murder Squared is four vignettes, about four crimes that take the audience on four different “journeys into suspense and the unexpected.” The cast includes Donald Capers and Mary Moebius (who also appeared in Matter of Intent), as well as Hugh Davis, Darryl Hart, Tilke Hill, Alexis Koetting, Rich Kraemer, Aaron Krygier, and Samantha Sherwood. Ross and Robert Ball have directed. The element of nostalgia will be highlighted by playful recordings of television theme scores that will be familiar to those of a certain age.

Whereas the commentaries from “the host” introduce comic elements, the vignettes themselves are alternately funny and serious.

“‘The Engineer,’ and ‘Return to Riverside Falls’ are serious in tone,” says Ross, “but I am not looking to make social statements. Then there are the other two, ‘Anything for Money,’ and ‘The Heart of the Matter.’ I’m looking at universal issues like human emotions, hunger for money and power, frustrating relatives, and the need to go home.”

Ross is especially pleased by the Ujima production, because his lighter work is so seldom performed.

“I was very surprised to learn that ‘Sleepwalker,’ a lighter piece of mine, was done in China! But in general, my serious writing gets more play.”

For a look at the dry wit of Gary Earl Ross, the Ujima production of Murder Squared plays at TheaterLoft through December 19. Call 883-0380 for reservations and information.