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Theater: Gaudy Night

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Pictured Jenifer Tyler in Gaudy Night.

Playwright: Frances Limoncelli

At: Lifeline Theatre

Contact: 773-761-4477,; $14-$26

Runs through: July 30

By Jonathan Abarbanel

Gaudy Night is Lifeline's third adaptation of a Dorothy L. Sayers novel featuring amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey. But it could be called Lord Peter Takes a Hike, for the aristocrat-sleuth is offstage through much of it. Instead, it focuses on detective novelist Harriet Vane, Lord Peter's fiancée of five years ( whom he proved innocent of murder in Lifeline's 2004 adaptation of Strong Poison, in which their romance began ) . Alas, Gaudy Night demonstrates that, except for Miss Marple and Nancy Drew, there are no good female detectives. Harriet cannot add up the clues, which become a puzzle solved only with the late arrival of Lord Peter.

However, Gaudy Night isn't really about cracking a case. There's no murder, only modest mayhem. It's a psychological thriller within the gothic atmosphere of a women's college at tradition-bound Oxford University, to which alumna Vane returns to solve a series of poison-pen incidents. While Lord Peter travels, Vane grapples with the mystery at hand and with Lord Peter's hand in marriage. Grateful to him for saving her from the gallows, she feels she cannot marry him unless they wed as equals.

This Lifeline production has a great deal to recommend it, starting with the likeable and capable performances of ensemble members Jenifer Tyler as Harriet ( her second time ) and Peter Greenberg as Lord Peter ( his third time ) . They know their characters and they have chemistry within the chaste bounds of the 1930s world in which Sayers sets them. The mostly female supporting ensemble plays a fine collection of starchy, stodgy, cagey and creepy Oxford dons and domestics; you know, Maggie Smith, Angela Lansbury and Judi Dench types. The only other man, Bradford R. Lund, as Lord Peter's nephew, injects needed zest from time to time.

Lund's boyish energy is refreshing, for this third Lord Peter is less involving than its two predecessors. There's too much plot for too little story, and not enough gothic theatrical effect. Director Dorothy Milne has chosen to play it as cool as Lord Peter's character, rather than build up the show's thrills and chills. It makes it long—at two-and-a-half hours—and sometimes labored and convoluted, for which adapter Frances Limoncelli partly is to blame. Like Harriet Vane, perhaps she couldn't quite make up her mind, but less would be more.

Nonetheless, Lifeline's Gaudy Night offers confident acting, competent dialects and strong visual appeal. You'll enjoy the sensible tweeds of Lindsey Pate's costumes and the splendid gothic triptych window that dominates Jackie and Richard Penrod's set, doubling as a screen for handsome rear projections of Oxford ( courtesy of Kevin D. Gawley's lighting design ) . Anyone who's seen the trio of Wimsey-cal works will hope for a fourth featuring newlyweds Lord and Lady Wimsey.

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