By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Oct 28, 2010 at 9:02 AM

When you buy a theater ticket to a mystery thriller, you agree to be manipulated. Hair-pin turns in the story and misdirection in the plot are part of the recipe. That's true whether the play is a straight drama or has a comic twist.

In exchange for giving the playwright permission to lead us down a few blind alleys, a mystery thriller must have clarity and credibility at the final curtain. The dots have to be easily connected when all is said and done.

"Art of Murder," the comic thriller In Tandem Theatre chose to open its 2010-2011 season, fails to do that. The 1999 play was written by Joe DiPietro, who has had his greatest success writing the book and lyrics for musicals. His credits include the long-running off-Broadway hit "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" and the 2009 Best Musical Tony Award winner, "Memphis."

DiPietro won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for "Art of Murder," but the Edgar is essentially a prize for novelists, and the play category often has thin competition. The stage thriller genre is not currently in vogue.

A triangle of testy hostility among a married couple who are artists and their edgy male art dealer is at the core of the story in "Art of Murder." The two men are obnoxious and the woman has grievances against both. A young Irish housekeeper is a minor character.

The plot turns are fuzzy rather than crisp, and the comic one-liners and social/artistic commentary DiPietro added to the thriller framework fall flat. Artist-dealer conflict is presented as the creative versus the crass, and the traditional sexism of the art world is repeatedly mentioned. These could be murder motives, but they aren't convincingly baked into the story.

The bottom line is everything here feels forced, from the plot to the humor to the acting of reliable stage artists Tiffany Vance, Steven M. Koehler and T. Stacy Hicks. Chris Flieller directed the production.

From Green Bay to Broadway

Dramatists rarely return to the same source material to write about the same character for a second play after an initial effort has been produced. Milwaukee native and former Waukesha County resident Eric Simonson has done it with a new work about Vince Lombardi that opened on Broadway last week.

Simonson used "When Pride Still Mattered," David Maraniss' compelling biography of the late Packers legend, to write "Lombardi: The Only Thing" for the now defunct Madison Repertory Theatre in 2007, and he tweaked the script for a Next Act Theatre production of the piece here a year later. He is back with another play about the coach, simply titled "Lombardi," and the Maraniss book is again the primary source of biographical information.

Dan Lauria, the father in the late 1980s TV series "The Wonder Years," portrays Lombardi. The coach's wife, who didn't make it into Simonson's first play about St. Vince, is a central character in the new drama, and she is portrayed by Judith Light, a Milwaukee Rep leading lady in the 1970s.

The critical reviews of "Lombardi" were mixed. Writing in the New York Times, Charles Isherwood called the piece "a workmanlike drama," and he questioned why the coach is offstage for long stretches of time.

"Perhaps this is meant as a tribute to Lombardi's own exhortations on collective effort," Isherwood wrote. "Still it is hard to imagine that a man enshrined in sports history for his obsession with winning would be happy to be stuck on the sidelines for such a sizable portion of this drama-deficient gloss on his career."

Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal was much more positive about "Lombardi." "Mr. Simonson has given us an extremely well-crafted piece of intelligent middlebrow theater...," the critic wrote, adding that the play "is tasty and filling.

"I know nothing about football and less about the Green Bay Packers, but 'Lombardi' held my attention from start to finish, and when it was over I went home feeling properly entertained."

You can see video snippets of the show in this onscreen review by veteran critic Roma Torre of New York cable news station NY1.

Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor

Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.

During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.

Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.