The opening sequence of "Women in Jeopardy!" is something anyone who has ever hosted a dinner party will relate to. Two people have escaped to the kitchen to refill their wine glasses -- and to gossip about the other guests.
In between sips of chardonnay, middle-aged divorcées Mary and Jo mock their friend Liz's new boyfriend, Jackson Scull. They find him a bit creepy, to put it mildly.
Jackson (Lou Sumrall) is a dentist. He has never married. And he seems to have a mild personality disorder, blurting out painfully awkward jokes at the worst moments.
Mary and Jo decide they do not like the new guy, which puts Liz in the uncomfortable position of justifying her young relationship.
"Women are always desperate to date a doctor. Why not a dentist?" she reasons. "They're doctors with regular hours."
Liz wonders if her friends -- dateless women who wear sensible shoes and do fun runs on the weekend -- are just jealous of her hot new romance. Unlike Mary and Jo, Liz (Gail Rastorfer) has not surrendered to mom jeans and T-shirts.
In fact, there were several times during Sunday's performance of "Women in Jeopardy!" at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre that Liz's outfits caused members of the audience to gasp in delight. During the dinner party, she wears a striking red dress, sparkly earrings, red heels and lipstick. Later in the play, she sports leopard-print leggings, knee-high suede boots and a low-cut sweater.
Getting back to the plot, Mary and Jo insist to Liz that jealousy has nothing to do with their distaste for Jackson. This becomes especially clear after it's revealed that Jackson's young, female dental hygienist has recently disappeared. Mary and Jo immediately convince themselves Jackson is a killer.
This sets into motion a comedic whodunit, with Mary and Jo furiously trying to piece together clues that will implicate Jackson. They're up against the clock, since Jackson is planning to take Liz's comely daughter, Amanda (Ashley Shamoon), on a camping trip in the wilderness. Surely, the poor girl will end up dead unless Jackson is stopped.
Played by Jessica Wortham and Julia Brothers, Mary and Jo are nervous wrecks every time Jackson is around. This sets up the funniest scene in the play, in which Mary gives deliberately vague answers to Jackson's questions about the whereabouts of her son, who is away at school in Connecticut.
"Where in Connecticut?"
It was the play's sharp wordplay, however, that drew the biggest laughs from Sunday's audience. Written by Wendy MacLeod, the script is loaded with punchline-driven dialogue.
"He really wants to be around people tonight," Liz says of Jackson after his hygienist's disappearance. "Why," says Jo, "does he need an alibi?"
And later in the play ... Jackson: "Do you have a firearm in the house?" Mary: "Of course not. We're Democrats!"
The plot eventually loses focus, as MacLeod chooses comedy over coherence. The most egregious example of this is a subplot in which Amanda's on-again, off-again boyfriend, a snowboarding instructor named Trenner, becomes convinced that Mary wants to sleep with him, despite their considerable age difference.
The shaky plot shouldn't deter audience members looking for easy laughs. Actor Jacob York, who plays Trenner, has an effortless comedic rapport with Wortham. They share some of the best scenes in the play's second half.
Directing "Women in Jeopardy!" must have been a delicate balancing act for Sean Daniels. It is, on one level, a murder mystery about amateur detectives. On another, it's about middle-aged female friendship. On still another, it's about searching for love after divorce.
It gets messy, especially toward the end, but strong performances by Wortham, Brothers and Rastorfer make seeing it a worthwhile experience.
Playwright Wendy MacLeod said she wrote "Women in Jeopardy!" as a vehicle for middle-aged actresses, who she believes are an untapped resource in American theater. She has three gifted comedic talents performing her material at the MRT.
"Women in Jeopardy!" runs through March 12 at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 East Merrimack St., Lowell. Tickets are on sale at www.mrt.org or by calling 978-654-4678.