'An Act of the Imagination'

Cast members perform a scene from Newport Theatre Arts Center's "An Act of the Imagination." (Newport Theatre Arts Center)

He may have been responsible for "The Flying Nun" and "The Partridge Family," but theater people will let those TV projects pass. Bernard Slade also gave us "Same Time, Next Year," "Romantic Comedy" and "Tribute," among many other finely crafted comedies.

Slade's career took a detour, however, when he came up with "An Act of the Imagination," currently on stage at the Newport Theatre Arts Center. It's a cleverly devised mystery play guaranteed to keep first-time audiences guessing.

Its protagonist, much like Slade, is a novelist who has become wealthy penning detective fiction, but his latest book delves into the romantic genre. The problem is, its May-December love story appears to be autobiographical.

Audiences are left to figure out whether "Act's" shy, bookish hero is a late-life lothario — and also whether or not he's a murderer. If you're new to this play, your chances of figuring it out completely are slim, but you'll have a great deal of fun unraveling it. Heck, I directed it about 15 years ago, and even I was perplexed early on.

Under the deft direction of Michael Serna, Slade's characters shift in and out of audience favor as the plot — which can't be overly detailed here — proceeds to thicken. Murder, or at least the appearance of it, looms as the solution to a thorny problem, but who was responsible?

At Newport, Jeff Bickel immerses himself in the role of the writer, a middle-aged milquetoast who appears incapable of either philandering or mayhem — but keeps a loaded pistol within reach. Bickel makes a virtue of absent-mindedness, but still leaves no doubt that he's a step or two ahead of those around him.

Toni Beckman as his wife, a tennis player who retains an athlete's form, turns in the finest performance of the night as she manipulates both husband and lover. Is she a faithful and supportive spouse or a conniving cougar seducing her equally shifty stepson?

The writer's good friend, a police sergeant who moonlights as a community theater actor, is rendered with volume and clarity by David Rousseve, who brings authority and affinity to his interpretation. Rousseve is the strongest actor on stage, often coming on a bit heavy in his lighter moments.

Sean Sellers is convincing as Bickel's avaricious son, continually thwarted in his get-rich-quick schemes. Playgoers may be divided in their opinions about this actor, who shifts the shape of his character like a cunning chameleon.

Three young women complete the Newport cast, with the highest decibel quotient achieved by Kerri Malmgren as a mysterious minx who shows up at the writer's home alleging impropriety and demanding a cash settlement. Malmgren is necessarily over the top in her flustered cameo, leaving credibility at the front door.

Becky King reflects wide-eyed admiration as the young assistant agent impressed by the writer's talent. Anna Peterson ties up the play's loose ends nicely as the haughty wife of a British diplomat thrust into the maelstrom.

Andrew Otero's mid-1960s setting of a comfortable English home fits the bill quite well, and Mitch Atkins' moody lighting is right on target. Sound effects by Brian Page lend a solid atmospheric touch.

Even if you've seen "An Act of the Imagination" (or even directed it), you'll find yourself caught up in Slade's well-crafted web of intrigue at the Newport Theatre Arts Center.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.

If You Go

What: "An Act of the Imagination"

Where: Newport Theatre Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 20

Cost: $16

Information: (949) 631-0288 or http://www.ntaconline.com