At the Court Theatre by Dan Zeff
Chicago –Agatha Christie’s murder mystery opened in London in 1952 and is still running, passing 28,000 performances and earning a slot as a major London tourist attraction on a par with Westminster Abbey. The play, doubtless because it has become such a commercial phenomenon and is a representative of the lowly mystery/suspense genre, has endured condescension from generations of critics and theater people. Thus the selection of “The Mousetrap” for a slot on the Court Theatre’s 2020 schedule may have startled those who view the Court as a citadel of classic drama.
Cynics might accuse of the Court of slumming, but cynics would be wrong. Agatha Christie may be best known as a novelist as a short story writer, but as a playwright she knows how to hold an audience with her skills in narrative construction that typical culminate in a stunning last minute plot twist.
“The Mousetrap” operates within the well established mystery/suspense formula. The location is an upscale country guesthouse conveniently isolated by a snowstorm. The story revolves around a recent murder and the stage is well stocked with possible suspects. One after another the characters fall under suspicion until the author pulls the surprise rabbit out of her dramatic hat at the end of the evening.
“The Mousetrap” is a splendid example of the murder/mystery play, a form popular during the 20th century but fallen into disuse today. Unfortunately, the Court Theatre wastes a good half of the play with silly humor and distracting stagecraft. The viewer attending the play for the first time is entitled to wonder how such an erratic strained show could have endured for so long in popularity. But relief comes in the second act when director Sean Graney stops flooding the stage with distracting ideas and allows Christie’s script to speak for itself. The first rate Court cast is then free to deliver Christie’s comic-tinged melodrama with all the suspenseful twists and turns it deserves.
There are eight characters in the play. The first two we meet are Giles and Mollie Ralston, the neophyte proprietors of the guesthouse. Within moments we learn from a convenient radio newscast that a woman has been murdered in London. One after another the guests arrive, and the Ralstons and the house guests each taking turns as the most likely killer.
A police sergeant in from the outside world, announcing he is investigating the murder and firmly stating that one of the seven other characters is the villain who needs to be identified before he/she strikes again. There are a number of pseudo climaxes leading up to the unveiling of the murderer, and that’s all that should be said about the plot out of deference to the viewer.
The play seizes on the clichés of the melodrama form but the wonder of this play is how well those clichés work. Even those patrons who have seen the play before and enter the theater knowing the killer’s identity should be engrossed once again by Christie’s storytelling skills.
The Court cast includes some of the top performers in Chicagoland theater, led by Kate Fry as Mollie Ralston, Alex Goodrich as offbeat suspect Christopher Wren, and Erik Hellman as detective sergeant Trotter. Fry ends the first act with one of the greatest screams I’ve ever heard on the living stage. The trio’s dialogue exchanges in the second act crackle with realistic tension and demonstrate how much better the production would have played if the first act nonsense had been drained away, allowing Christie’s realism to sell the story on its own considerable merits.
The remainder of the ensemble consists of Allen Gilmore as Giles Ralston, Tina Munoz Pandya as Miss Casewell, Lyonel Reneau as Major Metcalf, David Cerda as Mr. Paravicini, and Carolyn Ann Hoerdemann, as Mrs. Boyle.
Gilmore and Pandya are the most effective in taking their turns as the most-likely-suspects because they are the most realistically portrayed. Cerda is too over-the-top as the mysterious Paravicini and Hoerdemann could be more obnoxious as the disagreeable Mrs. Boyle. I never quite figured out what place Reyneau’s Major Metcalf had in the goings-on until the end. But when Fry, Goodrich, and Hellman were center stage, the show is a grabber.
Arnel Sancianco’s detailed two-level set provides an appropriately somber setting for the sinister happenings in the Great Hall of the guesthouse. The set is dominated by an elevated illuminated painting of a young woman who looks like she escaped from a Bronte novel and whose relevance I never caught, but the portrait does subliminally enhance the production’s sinister visual feel.
Alison Siple designed the costumes, several of which looked like they were outtakes from an “Alice in Wonderland” adaptation. The costume worked for Christopher Wren’s offbeat character, neatly developed by Goodrich into a figure of credible complexity. But Paravicini’s purple Bermuda shorts ensemble (in an English winter?) was just distracting. Claire Chrzan (lighting) and Kevin O’Donnell (sound) contribute nicely to the menacing undercarriage of the narrative.
Sean Graney developed a well earned reputation in Chicago theater for his edgy, adventurous productions but Graney’s theatrical sensibilities don’t seem a good fit for the realism required to sell Christie’s storyline. Christie’s script doesn’t need any directorial bright ideas. Graney has injected visual quirks, like artificially grouped characters, that do a disservice to the essential realism of the play. And program notes propose sociological trappings in the script that are unrealized, and unneeded. The second act, which is Christie at her best, should be the model for the entire evening.
'Mousetrap' gets a rating.
“The Mousetrap” runs through February 16 at the Court Theatre, 5535 South Ellis Avenue. Performances are Wednesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $37.50 to $84. Call (773) 753-4472 or visit www.CourtTheatre.org.