Review: Zany 'Murder at the Howard Johnson's' Provides Much Laughter

by Joe Siegel

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday September 29, 2021

Mike Petrarca, Ron Martin and Joyce Leven in "Murder at the Howard Johnson's.
Mike Petrarca, Ron Martin and Joyce Leven in "Murder at the Howard Johnson's.  

The Arctic Playhouse has kicked off their new season with "Murder at the Howard Johnson's," a wonderfully funny farce with solid performances and inspired direction by Tony Annicone.

Howard Johnson's, the now-defunct hotel chain known for its trademark orange roofs and 28 flavors of ice cream, is where all of the play's action occurs.

Ditzy Arlene (Joyce Leven) and her smarmy dentist lover Mitchell (Mike Petrarca) meet for a tryst and plot to murder Arlene's dopey husband, Paul (Ron Martin), a hapless used car salesman who wears garters to hold his socks up.

Arlene and Mitchell's diabolical plan is to drown Paul in the bathtub and make it look like an accident. However, the lovers soon learn that killing a man is not that easy.

Ron Clark and Sam Bobrick's script has clever dialogue and plenty of twists. At one point, Arlene finds herself literally at the end of her rope after falling for a motivational guru who is speaking at the hotel.

Leven is always engaging as flighty Arlene, who sports a blonde wig and a pair of rubber boots (courtesy of costume designer Nancy Sprito).

Petrarca ("Breaking Legs") is also effective as the two-timing Mitchell, who truly believes he is the greatest gift to women. We've seen this type of arrogant creep before, but Petrarca manages to imbue Mitchell with a little bit of vulnerability when he risks losing Arlene. The man is hopelessly inept at committing murder and romancing another man's wife.

The real standout is Martin, who was powerfully effective in "All My Sons" in 2019. Martin's comic timing is impeccable as Paul attempts to win back Arlene from her younger, more muscular lover. Martin generates real sympathy for this befuddled loser.

Annicone ("Last of the Red Hot Lovers") pulls out all the stops to give the audience a good time. A scene with Mitchell and Paul frantically running back and forth on a balcony is a comic highlight, as are the little moments featuring Paul casually eating fried chicken while holding a gun and another when Mitchell is trying frantically to fix a broken doorknob.

I also want to praise Jim Belanger and Lloyd Felix's ingenious set design. The hotel room looks suitably low-rent.

Although the story takes place in 1979, the situations and human frailties on display remain timeless.

"Murder at the Howard Johnson's" is not trying to be a serious exploration of marriage or even about the perils of infidelity. It is a zany comedy that aims to provide some laughs. Thanks to the fantastic byplay between Martin, Petrarca, and Leven, I got plenty.


"Murder at the Howard Johnson's" runs through October 10. The Arctic Playhouse. 1249 Main Street, West Warwick, RI. Masks are required for admittance. For tickets, visit thearcticplayhouse.com or call 401-573-3443.

Joe Siegel has written for a number of other GLBT publications, including In newsweekly and Options.