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A Meal and a Play at Clifton Dinner Theater

The cast of "Maid for Dogs," (standing, from left) Stephanie Lawrence, Charles Hoffman, Elizabeth Vittori, Walid Chaya, Jim Manchester, Maxwell Snyder, Helen Rusnak and Charlotte Yakovleff, and (sitting, from left) Lynne Strang, Andie Matten and Roxy Matten. Dogs are Abby and Izzy.

The cast of "Maid for Dogs," (standing, from left) Stephanie Lawrence, Charles Hoffman, Elizabeth Vittori, Walid Chaya, Jim Manchester, Maxwell Snyder, Helen Rusnak and Charlotte Yakovleff, and (sitting, from left) Lynne Strang, Andie Matten and Roxy Matten. Dogs are Abby and Izzy. Photo by Bonnie Hobbs.

Actors are often advised not to perform with children or animals because they’ll be upstaged. But in The Clifton Dinner Theater’s play, "Maid for Dogs," the animals – beautiful, gray, standard poodles – are well-behaved and the show is hilarious.

The cast and crew of 20 have been rehearsing since January. Producer Dianne Janczewski – owner of the two dogs, Abby and Izzy – created the play’s concept and director Charlotte Yakovleff wrote most of it.

"It’s a two-act, slapstick, comedic mystery," said Yakovleff. "We had an idea what the characters would be like, based on people I know. Then after I got to know the actors, I wrote the characters with Dianne according to who could play them."

"It’s amazing to see how regular people come together and change their own personalities into such dynamic characters," continued Yakovleff. "Audience members need to arrive on time and pay close attention to the action because, from start to finish, they won’t want to miss any of the show’s clues and details. It’s nonstop fun."

THE STORY takes place at a birthday party for wealthy Daphne Cranston. She’s spoiled her children and grandchildren, so they’re selfish and just keep taking. Someone dies during her party, and the play’s about the search to find the killer.

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(From left) Lynne Strang and Stephanie Lawrence, both of Clifton, perform a scene from the Clifton Dinner Theater’s "Maid for Dogs."

Clifton’s Helen Rusnak portrays Helen McArthur, who heads the investigation. Describing her character as loyal, clever and bright, Rusnak says McArthur can see through Daphne’s family and knows there’s been some foul play. "She’s a take-charge person," said Rusnak. "It’s fun for me because I normally play serious roles, rather than comedic ones.

This is a campy comedy with some very funny parts," she said. "Several of the characters will bring the house down. It takes place in Clifton, and we give shout-outs to people the audience will recognize."

Charles Hoffman of Fairfax Station plays Daphne’s brother, Edward. "He’s comic relief – not quite a bumbling idiot, but close," said Hoffman. "He fractures language and uses Southern colloquialisms. He drinks a little too much, but is a good brother. He’s so opposite my actual self; the things he says will make people laugh – at him and with him."

"This is an original script that’s a laugh riot and good entertainment," said Hoffman. "We have plenty of topical references, so it’s up-to-date and local. Everybody will have a good time."

Clifton’s Lynne Strang portrays Daphne, who lives on a big Clifton estate with horses and two poodles. "She’s a prominent member of the community who supports local causes," said Strang. "She’s her family’s matriarch, celebrating her 64th birthday. She cares deeply about her children and grandchildren, dotes on them and showers them with gifts. But they sometimes take advantage of her generosity."

Strang’s enjoying her role because she can do so much with it. "I take it to the next level and accentuate the things that make Daphne who she is," said Strang. "She’s elegant and loves fine things, so I’ll show that in her wardrobe and jewelry."

She said the audience will like the play’s humor and music. "We have a talented cast and some of them will be singing," said Strang. "There are also some unexpected, musical twists that will add to the audience’s delight. Plus, we have live dogs who add a unique feature to the performance. This group has lots of camaraderie, and it’s been a terrific experience."

Fairfax resident Elizabeth Vittori plays Daphne’s grown daughter, Maryanne. "She’s self-centered, self-absorbed and arrogant," said Vittori. "She’s always lived a pampered lifestyle and wants to perpetuate it. She’s pretty superficial and uncomplicated. She was the character I’d hoped to play, so I love her."

Vittori said the actors are doing everything, themselves, including finding their own costumes and getting props from their homes. "It’s soup-to-nuts community theater," she said. "It shows the passion we all have for this community. We’re all working together to create something wonderful."

PORTRAYING REBECCA, Daphne Cranston’s maid, is Clifton’s Stephanie Lawrence. "She’s a young woman trying to find her way," said Lawrence. "She cleans house, takes care of Daphne’s dogs and does whatever Mrs. Cranston wants her to do. She’s sweet and caring to her employer, but isn’t treated well by some of the other family members, so she can be caustic to them."

"Rebecca has several, different facets to her, so I get to explore each one to show her many layers," said Lawrence. "It’s also fun playing with the dogs." As for the audience, she said, "They’ll like the quirky characters and how they develop as the show progresses. They’ll like little nuggets about each one, and may find some surprises along the way. And they’ll see that we’re having a lot of fun."