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PRESCRIPTION MURDER: COLUMBO at Desiderio’s brings the beloved rumpled 1970’s detective to the post-prandial crowd

THE BASICS: PRESCRIPTION MURDER: COLUMBO, a play by William Link and Richard Levinson (also creators of the TV series) presented by Desiderio’s Dinner Theatre, directed by Jay Desiderio, starring Jack Hunter in the title role, runs through December 15, Thursdays and Saturdays, dinner at 6, show at 7:30; Sundays, dinner at 1, show at 2:30 (with a double performance, matinee and evening, on the final day of the run, Sunday December 15) at Bobby J’s Italian American Grille, 204 Como Park Blvd. in Cheektowaga (395-3207). Runtime: 2 hours with 2 (!) intermissions

THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Successful psychiatrist Dr. Roy Flemming (David Marciniak) wants out of his marriage to Claire Flemming (Lisa Hinca) and concocts a scheme towards that end, aided and abetted by his girlfriend Susan Hudson (Laura Barriere). Nathanial Higgins is Dr. Flemming’s friend, the D.A., and Rhonda Parker is the receptionist. Making his traditional second act entrance, Lt. Columbo is played by Jack Hunter (who recently played the President in FROST/NIXON).

L-R David Marciniak as Dr. Flemming has met his match in Lt. Columbo played by Jack Hunter

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: There are several “origin stories” for Columbo floating around and the one provided by director Jay Desiderio (that the play inspired the television series) gets at the truth, even though the actual chicken-or-the-egg timeline is a little more complicated. In truth, I’ve heard three different versions by three respected Buffalo theater mavens and, of course, there’s always Wikipedia.

But the bottom line is that what we see is not a transcription of some random episode of the 1970’s television series but was deliberately written as a stage play by the very two Hollywood writers who first created Columbo – William Link and Richard Levinson. So, while it might not be Shakespeare, it is a bit of American entertainment history and if nothing else, is a nice trip down memory lane.

The first television episodes starring Peter Falk as the rumpled, unlit-cigar-wielding detective were between 70 and 90 minutes, and, here on stage at Desiderio’s, subtracting the length of two intermissions, you get about the same amount of time on stage, although watching the first act, which had 1970’s type pacing, was a bit tedious.

I’ve previously mentioned the 1968 movie “Bullitt” as Exhibit A of how pacing five decades ago, which at the time seemed tense and edgy, is unbelievably slow by today’s standards. Scripts spelled everything out in excruciating detail. So it’s no surprise that a stage play, written by two Hollywood guys with that zeitgeist, might today seem a little, well, “relaxed.”

L-R Lisa Hinca and David Marciniak as the Flemmings

But this is some good, relaxing dinner theater which means that you eat, then the plates are cleared, then at the first intermission you can re-order drinks, and at the second intermission you can settle up with your server, or order more drinks and settle up after the play. But I’m telling you, if you don’t drink, the first act is going to drag. My suggestion, if you do drink, is to really enjoy yourself at dinner. Have a cocktail, then some wine with your food, and maybe a coffee with Amaretto après. You’re not going to miss much for the first forty minutes. As your head clears, you can pay more attention during the second act, and you should, hopefully, be attentive during the third act, as Detective Columbo continues his habit of turning around at the door saying “just one more thing” or “help me understand something that’s confusing me.”

Jack Hunter, the member of Actor’s Equity who recently returned to Buffalo stages from a career out west, is just as fascinating as he was last spring when the Irish Classical Theatre Company put on FROST/NIXON. Here, he does not impersonate Peter Falk, but incorporates many of the mannerisms that we all remember fondly. Here’s a fun fact: From what I read, Falk added a lot of the fumbling himself, which would annoy his fellow television actors to the point where it would be visible on camera. So, apparently, often what we saw as frustration with Columbo was real frustration with the actor Falk. Talk about “method” acting!

David Marciniak, who plays the typical Columbo villain – affluent, powerful, haughty, and disdainful – is one of those fine Buffalo actors who enters a role completely so that the next time you see him on stage, he’s as different from the last time you saw him as his character is different from the last one he played.

This is proving to be a popular play out at Desiderio’s and we were lucky to get a table on the night we wanted, so my advice is to book now. Here’s that phone number: 395-3207.

Photos by Jay Desiderio | Lead image: Jack Hunter as Lt. Columbo asks Now where did I put my pen?

UP NEXT: Another play by Norm Foster (author of last season’s successful THE LADIES FOURSOME) called ON A FIRST NAME BASIS runs January 23 to March 22, 2020. What’s it all about? From the playwright’s website we read: “A very successful, but cantankerous, novelist suddenly discovers that he knows nothing about his maid of 28 years. She, on the other hand, knows absolutely everything about him! With revelations that are surprising, funny, and extremely moving, this is a love story, a social commentary and a mystery.”

Also, for the holidays, Andrea Bocelli-style Italian Tenor Franco Corso returns to the dinner-theater stage with “My Italian Christmas Holiday Dinner Show” December 19 – December 22, 2019.

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For 20 years, as program host on Classical 94.5 WNED and continuing on-stage with the Buffalo Chamber Music Society, he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?"

As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take." And, on “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM and Saturday afternoons at 5:55 p.m. on Classical 94.5 WNED) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?"

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he has been an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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