It all starts out so neat and nice. One ideal couple welcomes the new couple to their perfect little neighborhood block. They bond, they barbecue, the ladies share quilts and the men play golf.
Things fall apart quickly, but then, you knew that when you walked into a play titled “Murder in Green Meadows,” a disturbingly entertaining mystery-thriller at the Morris Museum’s professional Bickford Theatre.
Artistic Director Eric Hafen is a fan of the genre and he’s good for about one a year, and does a good job digging up rarely seen but worthy whodunnits so we can enjoy the surprises and unexpected twists that tie them together.
In this case, he turned the director’s chair over to Duncan M. Rogers, whom Bickford regulars are used to seeing on stage in the leading role. Rogers lends his considerable experience to the four actors who are on stage and, individually, they do a fine job inhabiting some complex characters who engage in some truly heinous behavior. They also work well together to keep us, as Hafen promises, on the edge of our seats.
The trick to reviewing this kind of play is not to give away too much, particularly with this work, which puts a contemporary spin on pulp fiction. You won’t be dazzled by Post’s dialogue or artistic ambitions, although he does make some cutting observations about how life isn’t always as rosy as it seems, even in affluent suburbs. Mainly, he keeps the story moving and the tension building.
Scenic Designer Bill Motyka helps sell Post’s deception with visual contrast as dirty deeds are done dirt cheap on his stunningly impressive set — the attractive, upscale living room and open kitchen of Tom (Jonathan Holtzman) and Joan (Langley Brandon). They are the new kids in town, although as it turns out, Tom is the designer and builder of the subdivision. Jeff (Peter Kendall) and Carolyn (Elizabeth Simmons) are the welcome-wagon neighbors who are already happily entrenched in the community.
Or are they? Of course not. The rest you will have to learn for yourself, although the title permits me to state there is at least one murder. Or is there? I’ve already given away that things in Green Meadows are seldom what they seem.
I had never even heard of Douglas Post’s dark tale of suburban subterfuge. A founding member of the Victoria Gardens Playwrights ensemble in Chicago, “Murder in Green Meadows” curiously started out as a one-act television play, later adapted for the stage and premiered at the prestigious Steppenwolf Theatre.
The imprint of TV is still there, as both acts are chopped into several scenes that end with a cliff-hanging line, then fade to black. You almost expect to see commercials airing in between.
Of course, many viewers are preprogrammed for this format, and the scene changes are handled quickly enough, which is important for those who like to DVR their mysteries and fast-forward through the breaks. Take note of the well-chosen songs that play during the blackouts — “Burning Down the House,” “Under My Thumb,” “Every Breath You Take,” “Voices Carry,” — they either comment on the scene past or portend what’s coming next.
You’ll want to leave the kids and tweens at home, but for the mature audience, there’s good reason here to turn off the TV and enjoy some live theater that will leave you guessing until the very end.
“Murder in Green Meadows” runs through Feb. 17 at the Bickford Theatre, 6 Normandy Heights Road (Morris Museum), Morris Township. Tickets are $20 to $45. For information, call 973-971-3706 or visit www.morrismuseum.org