Alley Theatre through August 8
By JOHN DeMERS
Way back in 1952, a number of noteworthy things happened, I’m sure – only one of them the London opening of a clever little mystery play by Agatha Christie called The Mousetrap. Oddly, unthinkably almost, that play is still drawing enough of an audience each night to keep running. It’s a London tourist attraction by now, a must-see theatrical equivalent of Big Ben or Westminster Abbey. It’s entertaining what’s probably its third generation of Londoners, who consider it as much as part of their lives as the fog drifting in off the Thames.
And now, thanks to the Alley’s always-welcome Summer Chills series, The Mousetrap has arrived in not-so-chilly Houston. During the curtain call, one of its actors encourages audience members to tell their friends how good the play is – but not to reveal the ending. That’s been a Mousetrap tradition from the start. And based on the laughter and attention of the Alley’s opening-night audience, it seems to be working.
The Mousetrap, you see, is vintage Agatha Christie, in every sense of the word. Except for the absence of her famed, quirky-as-hell Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, the plot has everything we might wish for from her: many quirky characters, many possible motives for murder, many carefully measured-out bits of revelation, many “red herrings” to lead our suspicions astray. The story is, like most of her best plays and novels, unflinchingly dark in content. Yet (especially at the Alley, and especially during Summer Chills), twists are delivered with an entertainingly deft hand and more than a little camp.
This is truly an ensemble piece, and the company gives us an ensemble worthy of the word – lots of quick, witty and skipping-about dialogue, with stage movements that do much the same. Characters, in other words, seem to sit down only to stand up again, and arrive only to leave, preferably by a series of intricately described doors, staircases and back passageways. The Mousetrap goes to great lengths to set up possible entrances and exits, making the act of playwriting and the act of cold-blooded murder seem quite similar.
Being without Poirot to entertain us, we bond quickly with the quirkiest performances onstage: in this case, Todd Waite as Christopher Wren, a deliciously foppish young man with a wild head of curly hair and a penchant for very colorful socks, and John Tyson as the self-described “unexpected guest,” the Italian Paravicini. His face almost clown-white with too much makeup, his jet-black hair slicked back, his dark suit folding perfectly as he flits and flows through the play’s single set, Tyson is a delight. For seekers of Christie Quirk, all other characters pale a bit by comparison.
But then again, there’s that whole whodunit thing to worry about, along with who will almost certainly do it again. Elizabeth Bunch and Chris Hutchison are convincing as the young couple who’ve just opened the Monkswell Manor guest house that gets snowed in on Day One, as are James Belcher as the huffing-and-puffingly British Major Metcalf, Anne Quackenbush as the ever-judgmental Mrs. Boyle (a classic of British storytelling and presumably British life), and Josie de Guzman as the mannish Miss Casewell, the perfect gender foil for Waite’s over-the-top Wren.
Jeffrey Bean deserves some extra credit for his Detective Sergeant Trotter – but then again, the formidable ghost of Agatha Christie forbids us to tell you any more that that. After all, if past is prelude, the Alley may want The Mousetrap to run until at least 2068.
Photos by Jann Whaley: (top) Elizabeth Bunch and Todd Waite, (bottom) John Tyson, in Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap.