You hope, then, that the Alliance Theatre's world premiere production of A Death in the House Next Door to Kathleen Turner's House on Long Island will deliver the killer gags to live up to its moniker. But the theater's faith in playwright William Ludel proves gravely misplaced.
Morgan Hallett and Brandon Dirden play overly dedicated acting students named -- hang onto your sides -- Lucy and Desi. Dirden even calls his cohort "Loosy" in a Ricky Ricardo accent. The pair intend to break into Kathleen Turner's Long Island abode merely to snap a photo of her Oscar, although the play makes a droll running gag over whether Turner's even been nominated.
The stunt goes awry when Lucy finds a shape under a sheet that turns out to be a dead Labrador. Then the homeowners arrive, none of whom starred in Body Heat or Serial Mom, though they bring their own little dramas. Crabby Walter (Walter Charles) can't disguise his boredom with his imbecile second wife, Karen (Felicity LaFortune). Walter's nice-guy son Jason (David Marshall Silverman) lacks ambition: He's a Starbuck's employee.
The family finds the canine corpse and apprehends the movie-buff burglars, leading to the arrival of a high-strung police officer (Bart Hansard), a mousy veterinarian (Keith Reddin) and Walter's first wife -- who also happens to be named Karen (Beth Dixon). Lucy and Desi offer to perform a scene to prove they're actors, not thieves, and as they rehearse, romance fills the air. Or maybe that's just the dog.
Successful screwball comedies operate under a kind of magnetism, an invisible force that attracts some characters, repels others and keeps them in motion. But in this show, directed by Jeff Steitzer, the actors hang around in a kind of stasis. (What was that title? A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Kathleen Turner's House?) When actions repeat and awkward pauses drag out for supposedly comic effect, the play feels like it's deliberately frittering away your time. You think, "Maybe I'll just stare at the second hand of my watch until something happens onstage."
Ludel occasionally coins some clever wordplay, particularly over the phrase "For whom the bell tolls." Desi tells second-wife Karen, "John Donne wrote the poem," and she replies, "In America, we say 'John did write the poem.'" But Karen II seems to have escaped from a different script than the rest. Most of the roles, however silly, prove basically realistic -- even excitable Desi. Karen II, despite LaFortune's game efforts, comes across as a one-dimensional ditz whose incomprehension makes her the butt of easy jokes.
You can find a germ of a thoughtful theme in Guess Who's Coming to Kathleen Turner's House. The dead dog remains onstage, under wraps, until it becomes a kind of unspoken symbol of death. Love, family and art all emerge as means to deal with mortality. The notion culminates when Lucy and Desi perform a miscast death scene from a classic play, accompanied by inappropriate movie music. But the sequence, however amusing, doesn't justify its endless buildup or the rest of the show's underwritten emptiness.
Plus, the plot contains a baffling hole: Who put the sheet over the dog in the first place? I'm not just picking a nit -- people around me were wondering the same thing. But then, that's the least of the flaws in Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Kathleen Turner's House (But Were Afraid to Ask). Or something like that.