Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 34
Wednesday, August 22, 2007
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A FATHER DAUGHTER MOMENT: Thalia (Joanne Nosuchinsky, right) embraces her father (Joe Whelski) after they arrive at "Whizzer" Willis's (Michael Gorgio, not pictured) mansion, located on an island, for a visit that quickly becomes full of mystery, murder, and suspense.

"Whizzer's Island," Comic Whodunit With Princeton Connections, Premieres in Marvin Cheiten Production at Hamilton Murray

Donald Gilpin

Full of Princeton allusions and Princeton issues, Whizzer's Island, currently playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater, is the murder mystery comedy concoction of Marvin Harold Cheiten, local businessman and benefactor of Princeton Summer Theater and Theatre Intime.

Imagine a plot modeled after Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians (which played at PST a month ago in an excellent production) but with less substance, less suspense, perhaps even more contrivances, and a heavy dose of Princeton town and gown, including a thoroughly orange and black decor and no fewer than 14 tiger tails suspended around the living room set.

Mr. Cheiten has assembled a strong professional production team, under the direction of Dan Berkowitz, and a capable ensemble of professional and amateur performers to bring this entertaining spoof to life. Though Whizzer's Island doesn't provide the rich intrigue and gripping suspense sought by murder mystery aficionados, nor the hilarious comedy and incisive satire of a first-rate parody, Mr. Cheiten's carefully crafted play does provide a divertingly campy, sometimes witty, melodrama.

There is a special appeal here for Princetonians, who will respond to the many amusing local references to everything from the Princeton University History Department to the problem of deer over-population, the symbolism of the Princeton tiger (Why not a more benign orange pumpkin?) to the Annex, nouvelle cuisine, and a range of competitive restaurants on Witherspoon Street.

The highlight of this latest of Mr. Cheiten's original plays, five of which he has premiered at the Hamilton Murray Theater, is Joanne Nosuchinsky in the role of Thalia Brown, the young protagonist. Ms. Nosuchinsky, a sophomore at Rider College who also played the role of Thalia last summer in Mr. Cheiten's Miss Connections, possesses a natural style, with the ironic air of an observant teenager who is both involved in and detached from the action and can provide the audience with astute commentary and perspective on the proceedings. She is clever and convincing in creating a thoroughly appealing, three-dimensional character.

Whizzer's Island follows the familiar plotline of Ten Little Indians and many other classic whodunits, in which a group of disparate characters is brought together, then quickly trapped by dangerous weather conditions. Isolated from the outside world, unable to escape, the characters see their numbers diminished by one murder after another. Suspense rises. Nerves fray. The killer must be found before more deaths ensue!

Marvin Harold Cheiten's "Whizzer's Island" will run for one more weekend, August 24-26, with performances at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and at 2 p.m. on Sunday at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus. Call (609) 258-7062 for reservations and further information.

As the lights rise, Thalia and her father Tom (Joe Whelski) have just arrived at the 14-bedroom seaside mansion of "Whizzer" Willis (Michael Giorgio), a former Princeton University classmate of Tom, and — if banners, trophies, football team photos, three stuffed tigers, a tiger head over the door, orange and black valances over the curtains, the ubiquitous tiger tails and his necktie are any indication — the most compulsively devoted of Princeton alumni.

Whizzer, an investment banker and financial advisor, has ostensibly brought Tom to his island home to present a sales pitch for his new "Kill Bill Venison Corporation," a scheme to "make a dead deer more attractive than a live one" and thus eliminate Princeton's excess deer population, feed hungry restaurant goers and make Whizzer and his fellow investors rich.

Thickening the plot and providing additional prime suspects as the weather worsens and the island becomes shut off from civilization are Roxanne (Cate Adams), an acquaintance of Whizzer and coincidentally also the nurse of Tom's recently deceased wife; Claudette (Lauren O'Hara), Whizzer's sharp-edged, fashion-conscious step-daughter; Dr. Soberin (Fernando L. Gambaroni), a mad doctor, creator of the "Kill Bill cocktail" and owner of a bag full of dangerous looking syringes; and Foxton, the Lurch-like butler (Curtis A Kaine).

Whizzer's Island proceeds in classic whodunit style with several direct nods to Ten Little Indians. Threatening thunderclaps and lightning flashes punctuate the characters' ominous comments. Deep organ tones resound in the background. The coast guard is on its way but delayed by the extreme weather conditions. As the bodies start to pile up, clues abound and the mystery deepens.

As a single parent struggling to reconcile his own romantic interests with the needs of his challenging teen-aged daughter, Mr. Whelski's Tom Brown is credible and sympathetic in collaborating with his daughter in trying to plumb the depths of the mystery of Whizzer's Island. Mr. Giorgio as the quintessential loyal Tiger alumnus and ruthless businessman, Mr. Gambaroni as the mad doctor with a black sense of humor, and Mr. Kaine as the stately family retainer with the air of Boris Karloff all pull off these caricatures with a certain panache and campy humor.

Ms. Adams, in a more difficult straight role as the love interest and prime suspect, is appealing but uneven and less than thoroughly believable in performance. Ms. O'Hara's Claudette, with her gaudy outfits and increasingly lively cat fights, provides some of the most memorable moments of the show, but her haughty, one-note, biting attacks quickly become irksome.

It is Ms. Nosuchinsky's Thalia, however, who, in her often understated manner, steals the show. With a good heart, a sharp sense of humor, and frequent witty observations on the events and characters surrounding her, Thalia reaps the benefits of being both the most artfully, lovingly written and the most effectively performed role in Whizzer's Island.

Mr. Berkowitz, longtime Princeton director, frequent collaborator with Mr. Cheiten, and now based in Los Angeles, has set a brisk pace and staged the action effectively, deftly coordinating all production elements. Carrie Ballenger's detailed, well appointed set, with properties by Sarah Donner and lighting by Christopher Gorzelnik, captures the right spirit of realism, melodrama and, of course, the campy Princetonian orange and black run amok. Marie Miller's colorful costumes, also ranging from the realistic to the comically extravagant, suit perfectly the characters, the situations and the tone of the production.

Though not exactly a riveting murder mystery, nor a searingly cutting or riotously comical send-up, Mr. Cheiten's new play does offer audiences a diverting sojourn on Whizzer's Island, thanks to admirable production values and a protagonist so richly and engagingly created by the collaborative skills of the playwright and the talented Ms. Nosuchinsky.

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