“Even if I told you the truth,” playwright Rupert Holmes has said of “Accomplice,” his comic thriller now in a major revival at Two River Theater, “I’d be lying.”
More on that in a moment. Before addressing Rupert Holmes the playwright, though, it’s necessary to dispense with the elephant in the living room — in this case his pop-chart perennial “Escape (The Piña Colada Song);” the last number one hit of the 1970’s, and a song that’s even now very likely providing the satellite-radio soundtrack to your favorite Jersey Shore tiki bar.
Still, there’s more to the ubiquitous Mr. Holmes than even the pop-star and playwright personas. There’s Rupert the award-winning composer-arranger-producer of some classic Barbra Streisand albums. Not to mention Rupert the creator and head writer of the cable TV series “Remember WENN.” To say nothing of Rupert the novelist (“Where the Truth Lies,” out now on DVD in a screen adaptation by Atom Egoyan) or Rupert the chief cook and bottle washer behind everything from a musical version of the kid-horror series “Goosebumps” to the George Burns tribute “Say Goodnight Gracie.”
If it were really all that necessary to sum up Rupert Holmes in three words or less, you could do worse than to characterize him as a bonafide “master of mystery.” Beginning with the affectionate radio-thriller sketch “Psycho Drama” from his very first album in 1974 — and continuing on well into the murderous new millennium — this showbiz Renaissance man of trans-Atlantic parentage (raised in England, he has maintained dual citizenship in both the US and UK) has managed to keep one foot planted in both the British “drawing room” school of mystery writing, as well as the neon-lit back alleys of the American “hard-boiled” genre.
It’s a set of influences that have served him well throughout such disparate projects as the novel “Swing” (a Big Band-era thriller that comes complete with a companion CD of the author’s own mood music) and the 1986 “interactive” musical “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” — a career milestone that he penned while living the life of a “Jersey person” in Tenafly, and a Broadway smash that earned him three Tony awards.
Of late, the multi-tasking mysterian has been busily overseeing rehearsals for “Curtains,” a major murder musical (for which he wrote the book to songs by John Kander and the late Fred Ebb) that begins a high-profile L.A. engagement on July 25, with David Hyde Pierce heading a colossal cast of 28 performers — all of this even as he continues work on musical adaptations of “The First Wives Club” and “Second Hand Lions.”
With so much on his plate, Mr. Holmes might be forgiven for not finding much time to think about “Accomplice,” the 1989 play opening this weekend and running through July 16 as the first-ever summer mainstage presentation of Red Bank-based Two River Theater Company. Still, speaking during a rare break in the frantic rehearsal schedule (one that “makes the Normandy invasion look like a day in the park”), the Edgar-winning scribe expresses a real fondness for his vintage script as one that “means a lot to me…it’s much about the spirit of the classic British thriller style; channeling things like ‘Sleuth’ and ‘Deathtrap’.”
Taking place during the 1970’s inside an old mill on the English moors — converted by its new owners into a luxurious weekend retreat — “Accomplice” unfolds as a seemingly straightforward tale of adultery and attempted assassination among the upper classes, but soon assumes as many twists and turns as the rugged landscape of those aforementioned moors. According to the playwright, to reveal any further details would be to say too much — although it probably wouldn’t hurt to suggest that nothing is as it seems, and that nobody, but nobody, is innocent.
“Unlike ‘Curtains,’ which is quite a ‘whodunit’ detective story, ‘Accomplice’ is more a comic thriller,” explains Holmes, who further characterizes the story as “a particular brand of theatrical game between the actors and audience.
“We’re saying that we know you’ve all seen lots of mysteries…now let’s see if we can surprise you,” the author adds. “Like any good magic act, you kind of go in hoping that you can be fooled, and ‘Accomplice’ has been tricking audiences for a while now.”
The show comes to Two River’s new performing arts center with a major component intact — Obie-winning actor and director Daniel Gerroll, whose TV and movie credits include “Chariots of Fire,” “Sex and the City,” “Seinfeld” (he was Elaine’s layabout louse of a British boyfriend) and “Sisters,” where he was featured in a recurring role alongside series costar and wife Patricia Kalember. Mr. Gerroll has been involved with at least three major productions of this show — and puts his own very definite stamp upon the proceedings.
“Danny has a wonderful sense of style…he gives the show a lovely texture,” Holmes says of the actor whose history with “Accomplice” dates back to its premiere production. “When I first saw him do it, it was everything I could have hoped for — crisp, funny and elegant.”
Remarking that “I know it’ll be just as funny in (the Red Bank production)…he’ll probably throw in a few new wrinkles,” Holmes intimates that “I’ve made a few new changes of my own for this production.”
Featured in the cast with Gerroll are stage and screen players Ted Deasy and Kate Hodge — along with VH1/Nick At Nite personality Phoebe Jonas, who replaced Ms. Kalember in the production when a scheduling conflict arose.
Although “Accomplice” took shape as a straight play, the veteran composer couldn’t help but craft an exclusive thriller theme for the show, along with other incidental music — and, incidentally, the author forbids anyone to perform the show without the score.
“Music can be an important addition to any writer’s work — and music finds its way into all my work,” Holmes insists. “‘Curtains’ uses musical numbers as cues to facilitate the plot, and ‘Solitary Confinement’ even had a song and dance number in there.
“Even ‘Drood’ began life as a concept album,” the musically-inclined mystery maven confesses by way of illustrating the often unpredictable evolution of a Rupert Holmes concept. “Eventually it became sort of an analog version of an interactive DVD or video game.”
Adding that “Two River Theater has become a serious, major presence in the area,” Holmes (who reportedly took regular curtain calls with his cast during the 1990 Broadway run of “Accomplice”) regards his creation as a particularly stimulating brand of summer entertainment — smooth yet bracing as those piña coladas of song.
“It’s a nice mental exercise in a nice air-conditioned theatre,” Holmes sums up. “You’ll feel a chill up your spine.”