The Mousetrap, by Dame Agatha Christie. Directed by Allen E. Phelps. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
“Georgie! It’s Kathy.”
Ali Bourzgui and Sydney Berk in rehearsal; photo: provided
Half the fun of Agatha Christie’s historic play, “The Mousetrap,” is discovering who “done it” and why it was done. The other half is placing yourself, like a fly on the wall, in an ancient British mansion, Monkswell Manor, in the winter of 1952, the time when the play was first produced in London. What makes this so far from ordinary is discovering that the play has never closed and that for 66 years the play has never missed a performance, thrilling audiences nightly and two matinees a week for longer than many of my readers have been alive.
Due to a contractual agreement with Christie, the play has never officially been filmed and the play traditionally comes with a plea to the audience not to reveal the ending outside the theater. This caveat is not being honored in the current production at the Theater Barn in New Lebanon, NY, although it is doubtful if most people, even an hour after leaving the playhouse, could remember exactly how things turned out. It is one of the most pleasurable aspects of Christie’s plays: you can see them year after year and always get a thrill out of her surprise twist endings.
Allen E. Phelps, artistic director of the company his parents founded decades ago has staged this new production of the play and he does it beautifully. His eye for detail and his perfectly timed entrances give the play a stunning reality that keeps audience interest alive and focused. This is the company’s only three-week run this season and I would suggest booking your tickets soon as they may become very hard to get once word gets out about the high quality of Phelps’ work here.
Of course he has some wonderful talent on stage and off stage, among whom is John Trainor, a company regular, playing the oddest role, the uninvited guest Mr. Paravacini whose presence is never really understood or explained. Trainor is a familiar hand in the annual Christie play usually playing the inspector. Here he is an Italian whose car has overturned in the snowy countryside who seeks refuge at the Bed and Breakfast run by Mr. and. Mrs. Ralston, a couple with a pair of secrets securely hidden in a desk. The acquisition of those secrets has required a travel experience that each conceals from the police causing misunderstandings between the couple.
Opening their new inn, an assortment of guests arrive including a flighty young man named Christopher Wren, a bullish young woman named Miss Casewell, an older, rather imperious woman named Mrs. Boyle, a retired miliary man - Major Metcalf, and ultimately Detective Sergeant Trotter who comes to investigate the murder that ends the first act. At first it seems clear that this random group have no connections,but, doing what Agatha Christie does so well, we begin to discover the curious threads that sew these people into a tapestry of familiarity, family and mayhem.
Patrick Scholl plays Trotter and his looks of confusion are often matched with his body language indicating just the opposite. Scholl is a handsome actor whose youth is apparent but whose connection with the detective’s work seems just as obvious. It’s a neat interpretation by a young actor who knows his stuff.
Equally exciting is Ali Bourzgui as Christopher Wren whose excitability makes him both a target for murder and an obvious choice for the criminal element. Bourzgui does an excellent job as Wren giving the character a true life-force.
Cara Moretto plays Miss Casewell whose physical deportment is anti-feminine and yet still attractive and mysterious in the way Mata Hari must have been in her day. Moretto plays this woman with a strong inner sensibility that proves that while diamonds may be a girl’s best friend in one way, a definite strength of character is a girl’s best protection.
Charlotte Harvey plays Mrs. Boyle with the upper-class crustiness of a battle-ax mixed with the curiosity of a ‘been-there-done-that’ house cat. Harvey never pushes the obvious domestic traits of Mrs. Boyle and yet we can almost hear her condemnation of every aspect of the manor, far beyond the critical resonance of her actual comments on the topic. Leaving the stage after the first act Harvey’s presence is hard to shake and she is missed.
Sky Vogel as the Major is the ideal stiff-military man whose tendency to soften is something he must suffer rather than shake off. This is another fine performance from Vogel, one that helps to confuse the audience about who is there to do what and to whom.
As the hosts of Monkswell Manor Sydney Berk and Adam Giannone are wonderful. They fight like married people often do and they are solid individually and together as the play begins to wind down into a murder/mayhem plot that threatens to destroy what they are building together. Berk is both lovely and endearing; at the same time she is definite and realistic almost to a fault. Giannone plays the pent-up jealousy and rage of the young husband very nicely and if this doesn’t actually move us to wonder about his motives it does move us to appreciate his young husband’s ardor.
Every character’s British accent is unique from the others and this creates both a cacophonous atmosphere and a fine reality often missed with stage-British. I really appreciated the amount of work that has gone into the character creation of the company.
David Louder’s costumes speak of time, place and person very well and the set designed by Anthony Martin works well enough to almost make this show into a farce; it isn’t funny though, and the convoluted English countryside creation seemed very right for this play’s setting. Lighting was very good and the sound design, mostly of snow (yes, snow has a sound), were well plotted by Karissa Monson.
Every year I look forward to the “Christie” and this year the stage at the Theater Barn is filled with just what the doctor ordered. Visuals, orals, character, clothing, it’s all just right, just what it should be and needs to be. Phelps’ production is about the best you will see outside of St. Martin’s Theater in the West End of London, so save yourself the airfaire and get to New Lebanon instead. It’s a trip.
Patrick Scholl and John Trainor in rehearsal; photo: provided
The Mousetrap plays at the Theater Barn, 654 Route 20, New Lebanon, NY through July 22. For information and tickets go on line at www.theaterbarn.com or call the box office at 518-794-8989.