Photo Flash
A comic mystery in two acts
by Michael Craft

Cast requirements:
     4 men, 4 women
Scenic requirements:
     1 interior (view plan)
Estimated running time:
     2 hours, 10 minutes (including intermission)
First scheduled performance:
     September 19, 2003 (read premiere details)

Fifty-four and single, Claire Gray has recently embarked upon a new life. Having lived for some 30 years in New York, where she established herself as one of Broadway’s most respected directors, she has agreed to head the theater department of a recently built college near Palm Springs, California. Settling into her new home, she has now directed her second major production at Desert Arts College, a revival of her own hit play, Traders, starring Tanner Griffin, a 26-year-old heartthrob she has discovered, taught, and mentored.

The powerful film producer Spencer Wallace has seen Tanner act, and he agrees—Tanner is sensational. In fact, Wallace has signed Tanner to appear in his next major movie, Photo Flash. Widely known as Mr. Blockbuster, Wallace has high hopes for this project; he wrote the script himself, based on his own photography hobby.

Claire couldn’t be prouder, but the trouble is, she and the much younger Tanner have developed an intimate relationship—they’re practically living together—and now that Traders has closed, Tanner will soon be leaving for Hollywood. Claire knows she’s losing him, and in a moment of frustration at the play’s closing-night party, she blurts to Tanner, “I could kill Spencer Wallace for stealing you from me!” Sure enough, after the party, Wallace is found dead in Claire’s swimming pool. Before the curtain falls on scene two, her remarks have been reported to Detective Larry Knoll, who’s investigating the suspicious death.

It was murder, all right, and as details of Wallace’s demise begin to emerge from the investigation, Claire finds herself increasingly under suspicion. But she’s not alone, far from it, and Detective Knoll eventually welcomes her assistance in sorting through the facts and the suspects. It seems everyone had a plausible motive against Wallace—Claire and Tanner; Larry’s campy brother, real-estate developer Grant Knoll; Claire’s zany old chum, costumer Kiki Jasper-Plunkett; the victim’s icy widow, Rebecca Wallace; and her slippery attorney, Bryce Ballantyne. Even the scatterbrained maid is seen in a suspicious light.

At times rollicking and at other times profoundly serious, the show mixes irreverent laughter with Claire’s dawning insights into the classic middle-age riddles of lost youth. These emotional extremes serve to frame the ongoing whodunit, which Claire finally solves in a moment of victory—vowing to restrict her future triumphs to “the theatrical variety.” Somehow, we’re left with the lingering impression that Claire’s sleuthing days have only begun.

The script is appropriate for production by any adult or college troupe. (Most high school groups would find it difficult to convincingly portray the crucial age difference between Claire and Tanner, who are romantically linked.)

Michael Craft Author’s comments

Readers who are familiar with my novels have long been aware that theater is a deeply held interest of mine. The theatrical world provides a general backdrop for all of my Claire Gray novels, as well as the fifth Mark Manning mystery, Boy Toy. To a lesser extent, theater plays a role in two earlier Mark Manning books, Eye Contact and Name Games. It will come as no surprise that this focus on theater stems from my own involvement with “the art of Thespis.”

I discovered the magic of theater during my sophomore year of high school, and it has been a force in my life ever since. I was extremely active in theater not only in high school at Elgin Academy (Elgin, Illinois), but also in college, at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign). Later, when my day-job career settled down, I came to know the delights of community theater with Lakeside Players in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

  Click on the photos
  from Michael's theater scrapbook
  for a larger view and details.

Over the years, I’ve appeared in 17 productions, playing roles that have ranged from Shakespeare to farce. The role of which I’m proudest, by far, is that of Salieri in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, produced by Lakeside Players in 1994; I spent a year memorizing the lines and, by all accounts, did a fair job of it. In 1996, I had the opportunity to explore another facet of theater when I directed my first play, a production of A.R. Gurney’s Later Life. On the “management” side, I served as president of Lakeside Players from 1994 through 1996 and in various board positions for several years before and after.

This period of intensive involvement came to an end in 1997, when my first Mark Manning novel, Flight Dreams, was published by Kensington Books. Securing that initial three-book contract was the realization of a long-held dream, but it left little time for other creative pursuits, so my days of active participation in theater drew to a close. Still, the longing was there, and as my self-confidence as a writer grew, I came to realize that it was time for me to explore yet another facet of theater. I wanted to try my hand as a playwright.

I hit upon the specific idea of writing a Claire Gray murder mystery (for the stage) while researching several aspects of my second Claire Gray novel, Desert Winter. In that book, Claire is mounting a production of the suspense classic Laura and decides to borrow a plot device from the film that had been based on the play (this concerns the detail of hiding the murder weapon in an antique clock). In order to make sure I had my facts straight, over the course of a week or so I read the original Laura novel, then the play script, and then watched a tape of the movie. I was fascinated by the way the author, Vera Caspary, had adapted the same story to three different media. Each telling was unique; no two versions were identical. But the basic plot and its arc of suspense and resolution remained very much intact.

Thus inspired, I decided that my next (unwritten) Claire Gray novel, logically titled Desert Spring, would share its plot with a stage play. Rather than write the novel first, then condense and “dramatize” it, I decided to tackle the play first, then expand and “novelize” it. The result is Photo Flash, a Claire Gray mystery in two acts; it is the basis for Desert Spring, my third Claire Gray mystery novel, to be published by St. Martin’s Press in early 2004.

The play has to stand on its own, of course; at least that’s my intention. Audiences need not be familiar with any of the books in order to understand and enjoy the play. Because a play is so much more restrictive than either a novel or a movie in terms of its time frame, setting, and number of characters, I needed to “recycle” a few suspects from earlier Claire Gray novels (notably Grant and Tanner), and not all of the standing characters from the novels (notably D. Glenn Yeats) can appear in the play. In the novelization, Desert Spring, things are back on track; Glenn is in the story, and newly invented characters replace Grant and Tanner as serious suspects.

Finally, a note on the play’s tone. As murder mysteries go, this one contains plenty of humor, with Grant and Kiki leading the laughs. Audiences should thoroughly enjoy themselves while weighing the headier issues of homicide and detection. In fact, after reviewing an early draft of the script, a university theater professor suggested that I should label it “a comic mystery,” which I have done.

Ultimately, however, Photo Flash is as much a character study of Claire Gray as it is a perky whodunit. Claire is a complex gal, struggling with some fairly heavy issues at the personal, emotional level, as delineated in the play’s romantic subplot. This, I hope, is what will set Photo Flash apart from so many other worthy drawing-room dramas. These deeper issues, which are decidedly not comic, are meant to keep audiences thinking—after the curtain falls.

Rights and royalties

Photo Flash is held in copyright by the author, Michael Craft. Production of Photo Flash, whether professional or amateur, is subject to a royalty, which must be paid whether the play is presented for charity or gain and whether or not admission is charged. For information regarding production rights and royalties, or to obtain a sample copy of the script, simply e-mail the author.

Queries regarding all other rights, including film or television development and translation into foreign languages, should be addressed to the author’s agent, Mitchell Waters, at Curtis Brown Ltd., 10 Astor Place, New York NY 10003.

Click here for a listing of the cast of characters.

Click here for a synopsis of scenes.

Click here to view the scenic design.

Click here to read a scene from the Photo Flash script.

Click here for an overview of the Photo Flash premiere.

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