Playwright Wayne Rawley is at his best when he's skating a loose line between real tragedy and bizarre fantasy, propelling his characters and story lines forward with a rushing avalanche of smart but trashy gallows-humor wit. In his 2011 play Live! From the Last Night of My Life, he gave us a window into the mind of Doug Sample, a former Amazon.com employee who's wound up working the graveyard shift at a rural gas station. He's planning to kill himself once he's done for the night, and the play is a parade of freaks who float across Doug's consciousness. The result was a magnificent study of depression and work, somewhere between Chekhov and Clerks.
For Attack of the Killer Murder... of Death!, Rawley air-drops us into a creepy mansion on a remote island in the late 1950s where a bunch of Los Angeles weirdos are trying to film a B-grade (maybe even C-grade) horror movie. All the archetypes are there: the aging and demanding diva, the impatient director, the Commie writer who's trying to slip social commentary into his schlocky scripts, the rich producer, and so on. They've also got a terse detective in tow to work as their consultant. When the diva keels over, they're torn between finishing the film and trying to find out what killed her. When they find the island's only phone smashed, they realize they're in the middle of a murder scene—and they're all suspects.
Rawley's packed the play's snappy three acts with flashbacks, double-crosses, and so many secret identities that it's nearly impossible to say any more without spoiling the surprises. Attack is definitely a summer play—a smart, fun, twisty homage to mid-century pulp detective fiction and the old black-and-white screamers that used chocolate syrup for blood.
Tim Moore's eyebrows get a serious workout as the hammy, dim leading man, Martin Van Handsome, who delivers his ridiculously expository lines in the filming scenes with a baritone combination of breathlessness and bravado: "It's me, Betty. Who else would it be? I'm Sheriff Dan Blanderson, and you are Betty Jean Humbolt. We're engaged to be married and we've come here with a crack scientific team to investigate the strange disappearance of top atomic satellite research scientist Sigmund Blitzkrieg, haven't we?" Nik Doner plays the beatnik crew guy, whose fondness for marijuana makes him "write really bad poetry and make really good sandwiches," with spasmodic glee. And Lisa Branham delivers a delightfully commanding performance as the insufferable diva, Desdemona Sunset, who lords everything over everybody. When she collapses on the set for no apparent reason, the detective (played broodingly by Ashley Bagwell) asks the room: "Did she have a bad heart?" Nobody answers.
Attack is the first production in Theater Schmeater's new home on Third Avenue in Belltown. It lost its longtime basement stage on Capitol Hill last year, where it was probably best known for its loose, careening productions of Twilight Zone episodes and cutting, macabre comedies including A Behanding in Spokane by Martin McDonagh and Rawley's Live! From the Last Night of My Life. Theater Schmeater's decision to reintroduce itself with a zingy Rawley play was a smart one, showing the world that other than moving a mile west, it hasn't changed at all.