Something mysterious is taking the Arts Barn stage in the Kentlands. Mysterious, and funny, too — because “Catch Me If You Can,” Montgomery Playhouse’s latest offering, is a theatrical hybrid best described as a comedy-whodunit.
“It’s a mystery that has comedy in it, and it’s full of surprises,” said Ed Starr, the play’s director. “It comes together because it’s very well-written, and the comedy comes out of the characters.”
Completely unrelated to the 2002 movie of the same name starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks, “Catch Me If You Can” was written by Willie Gilbert and Jack Weinstock, based on a play by Robert Thomas.
“This play was written in the 1960s by a Frenchman,” Starr explained. “It was then translated and adapted by two other guys, who opened it on Broadway where it ran for about two years.”
The play, he added, “is much better than the movie — and much less expensive.” That’s because of people like Starr and his cast, talented theater-lovers who pursue the arts through community theater. A retired economist, the native New Yorker was an avid theatergoer who decided at about age 40 to become more involved in the creative process. Relying on “courage, imagination, patience and a sense of adventure,” he made his directorial debut.
Starr’s first Montgomery Playhouse experience was directing David Lindsay’Abaire’s “Fuddy Meers” in 2012. “It’s a play that I had seen at Woolly Mammoth Theatre and adored,” he recalled. “So, I wrote a proposal.”
Montgomery Playhouse accepted, and Starr enjoyed the experience so much he came back to do Neil Simon’s “God’s Favorite” in 2013. Most recently, when Montgomery Playhouse was looking for someone to direct “Catch Me If You Can,” he said, “I read the play and I was enchanted by it.”
Starr saw the play as something “that could have been written by Alfred Hitchcock and Neil Simon. It is an old-fashioned mystery that is very funny. And that combination of elements attracted me.”
“It’s a fun little thriller,” said Anne Vandercook, who plays Elizabeth in the production. “It’s got a little bit of everything.” An actor, director and producer, Vandercook did her first show with Montgomery Playhouse in Starr’s “Fuddy Meers.”
“It’s hard to explain,” said the Gaithersburg resident. “Once you get bit by the bug, you never really want to stop. I can’t help myself. When I’m onstage with my castmates, it’s just so much fun.”
Fun — but serious as well. At Montgomery Playhouse, there’s no pre-casting, so everyone must audition. Vandercook said she knows some of her six castmates very well from previous shows, and she sees familiar faces when she looks into the audience. “There’s definitely a group of people that follow Montgomery Playhouse,” she said. “They’ve been around for a very long time.”
It’s true: Formerly known as The Montgomery Players, the group formed in 1929 and is now the oldest continuously performing community theater in the D.C. metropolitan area (and the second oldest in Maryland). Among its alumni is Oscar-winner Goldie Hawn, who was in “A Shot in the Dark” back in 1965.
For Vandercook, being part of Montgomery Playhouse is a labor of love. “We’re all volunteers,” she noted. “We’re all there because we’re passionate. It’s what we love. It’s something that we can’t not do.”
And as passionate as she and her castmates are about performing, Vandercook sees Montgomery Playhouse as a venue that makes live theater more accessible to audiences who might not otherwise see a show. “When people think of theater, they think of the Kennedy Center or Round House,” said Vandercook. “But there’s a lot of really great community theater, a lot of talented people, in the area.”
And those people are what makes Montgomery Playhouse special, according to Starr. “The producers, the designers — costume designers, set designers, lighting designers — they’re all volunteers. They all do it because they just like doing live theater,” the director said. “And the Arts Barn is a wonderful facility.
“What else does a fella need in an environment like that?”
“Catch Me If You Can” runs through Jan. 20 at The Arts Barn, 311 Kent Square Road, Gaithersburg. Performances start at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Admission is $20, $18 for students, ages 15 to 21, with student ID. This show is recommended for ages 15 and older. For tickets, call the Arts Barn Box Office at 301-258-6394 or visit https://www.gaithersburgmd.gov/recreation/performing-arts/theater/catch-me-if-you-can.