Spider's Web, by Agatha Christie. Directed by Allen E. Phelps. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"It sounds like an Edwardian novel."
Gianmarco Colucci and Phil Rice blindfold John Trainor; photo: Allen E. Phelps
It's been ten years since Allen E. Phelps last directed Agatha Christie's 1954 play, "Spider's Web" on the stage of the Theater Barn in New Lebanon. The last time around it was a romp. This time it's a romp using two horses instead of one. With an intermission the play runs two hours and twenty-four minutes. That time seemed to fly by as the main character, Clarissa Hailsham-Brown, told tales, made up stories and generally confused the issues for as long as possible while trying to understand the real issues of the plot that surrounded her. Aided by three men who adore her, Clarissa manages to cloud in the killer, the plotters, the liars and the fools and when the murderer is outed it was almost as big a surprise to her as to us. That's lovely writing, directing and acting.
The show is made even lovelier by the appearance of two men who have long participated in the annual Christie play at the Barn: John Trainor and Phil Rice. Trainor used to play the Inspector but this time around he is the sweetheart of a bumbler, Hugo Birch while Rice who has taken many different turns plays the sweetly sympathetic amateur sleuth Sir Rowland Delehaye. His Lordship is an accidental sleuth, spotting holes and filling them with facts, aiding and enlisting the police while thwarting their attempts at solving the case. Rice handles the dichotomy well, playing both sides of the coin in his pocket with equal elán. Trainor is the full-on bumbler in this play, making expository remarks without realizing it, quibbling over nothing, snarkily snagging his brittle British accent on facts that could be categorized as fake facts in this day and age. He lends strength to each remark made through his definite pronouncement stylings. As elderly romantics, both men find a fine place in the proceedings.
They are joined by Gianmarco Colucci as the youngest man caught in Clarissa's thrall, her seductive web. He plays Jeremy Warrender with charm and style and a touch of upper-class wit. If she is at all fascinated by Jeremy it is Gianmarco's fault. As she may seduce her men, so may he his women. They make a lovely pair and, since her husband is never seen in this play, he seems to stand a good chance of landing at least a passionate kiss before the night ends.
There are two Haisham-Brown women in this play, Clarissa and her step-daughter Pippa. Pippa is played by the third generation of Phelps-folk to grace this theater, Katelyn Widmer. She plays the role with perfect control. Her confession of guilt is nicely done and her sleepiness was convincingly played. Not her debut on this this stage, Pippa is an excellent opportunity for her to move up from just another face in the crowd to a role of substance.
Complicating the story are the butler Elgin, played by Brian Plouffe, Oliver Costello played by Andrew Pace and Mildred Peake, played with an earnestness and hysterical shriek or two by Brette Morningstar. This actress takes on the unattractive female role, the Margaret Rutherford part, of an interfering busybody who manages to lift weights in her spare time when not cleaning the gutters or collecting the rent. Morningstar gets all of her laughs and reveals all of her hidden truths with the same assertive mannerisms that are charicteristic of this sort of role.
Plouffe's Elgin is a character whose implied threat to life as we know it is complicated by a Peter Lorre sensibility and a slightly exaggerated delivery of his very important lines. This gives him a rather unique sense of believability. Andrew Pace's Oliver, the combined bad-guy/dead-guy is briefly but brightly played, adding to that wonderful Christie sense of no character, like no stone, should go unturned.
The police are represented by Paul Araiza's Constable Jones and Toby Wherry's Inspector Lord. Jones is a functionary and Araiza plays him well, taking notes, calling witnesses, identifying the small things we all might miss. Nicely done. Wherry's Inspector dominates the stage for much of the second act and he handles that aspect of his role so well. We watch the frustration grow behind his tired eyes and loosening hair. We hear the agony of loss in his voice when the body disappears. We know how he feels when he smells a lie being laid out on the table before him. Wherry does this all nicely, leaving in his wake a neatly tied bundle of false clues and conundrums.
Clarissa is played by Kate Berg. Pretty, silly, sweet and pert, Berg takes on the constant changes in her character's attitudes and her story-telling as though it was simply second-nature to her. The actress brings a naturalness to prevarication. She handles the self-inflicted twists and turns in her path as though they had never been there. Her character displays an easy nature in the flirtation department and a winsome smile in her sincerity, as she motivates her men-friends without promising them anything more than her thanks, arms-length thanks at that.
In the ten years since he last directed this play Allen E. Phelps has grown as a director. His cast, and he had good people to work with last time, seem to react to his understanding of the characters perfectly and there is not one false note on the stage. He has a knack for the framed stage picture undoubtedly gained through his lighting design work. He also moves people well so that our attention is always where he and Christie intend it to be. Unlike some of her playwrighting work this murder mystery is more of a "what you see is what you get" sort of thing, but even that in the wrong hands can become a messy alternative to real drama. Phelps and crew, abetted by this excellent cast, keep this show focused and fun.
People from all over the region depend on their annual Christie and this year they will not be disappointed by a single moment of it. With Abe Phelps handsome set, Jade Campbell's lovely costumes and Gabe Karr's excellent lighting the play cannot miss. As always the show has a limited run, so you need to run and get those tickets before they sell out. . .again.
Phil Rice, Katelyn Widmer, Kate Berg; photo: Allen E. Phelps
Spider's Web plays at The Theater Barn at 654 Route 20, New Lebanon, NY through July 23. For tickets and information call the box office at 518-794-8989 or go on line at www.theaterbarn.com.