Arlene (Maelyn Gándola) yearns for 90 percent unimaginable feminine liberty, 10 percent fried clam dinners, while Mitchell (Adam Daniel) and Paul (Jake Rosko) ineffectually fight for her affections.
More than once during Scripps Ranch Theatre’s production of Murder at the Howard Johnson’s, ditzy would-be femme fatale, Arlene (Maelyn Gándola), refers to HoJo’s fried clam strip dinner with lustful glee. This is perhaps the sole aspect of the play inextricably pegged to 1979: the year the play was written, and the year designated for the production. Then, there were over a thousand Howard Johnson’s restaurants in the U.S.
The Howard Johnson’s hotel chain still exists, but, today, there are exactly two Howard Johnson’s restaurants in the entire United States.
Exactly two, and if eminently credible Yankee Magazine is to be believed, they are not doing brilliantly. Of the 320 million people in this country, a few thousand might eat HoJo fried clams this year, and that’s being generous.
Because of the internet, we know there’s still a place in the hearts and minds of the American people for the chewy strips of deep-fried sea clam yearned for by Arlene. For some people, especially those in the Midwest living far from the sea, Howard Johnson’s clam strips were the only conceivable form of edible clam. They would be horrified by the geoducks in the Pacific Northwest and the steamed soft shell clams of New England. To put it bluntly, Howard Johnson’s defined fried clams for a significant number of American diners.
Murder at the Howard Johnson’s was probably never meant to serve as a rich cultural study of 20th-century Americana. Director Phil Johnson calls it “a funny, sexy piece of fluff,” which has as much pithy accuracy as anything. Yet ghosts haunt the script, and what chills the bones is how long dead they aren’t. This play takes place just under 40 years ago, but Howard Johnson’s fried clam dinners (all you can eat on Fridays!) are ancient history with respect to their near extinction, and the vanishingly small chance that anyone who sees this play will ever eat one.