Agatha Christieís The Hollow by Agatha Christie. Directed by Allen Phelps.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"At least Iím sure of that!"
Joan Coombs and John Trainor; photo provided
The hardest part of playing a stereotype is playing it right. In Agatha Christieís play "The Hollow" the hardest part to play of all is the outsider. Five of the eleven characters in the version now on stage at the Theater Barn in New Lebanon, NY are cousins. As such there are some bizarre similarities among them and yet each one has his or her own quirks. With those quirks come the spottable foibles that families often share. Only some of that is observable in this production and the outsiders are so outside that at times they donít seem to belong in the same play.
Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell are elderly, somewhat dotty, husband and wife cousins. Their younger, live-in, cousin Henrietta is a sculptor. Her cousin Edward is the inheritor of the historic family manse and a somewhat simple soul. Their half-cousin Midge is a poorer working girl with a longing for the full family connection. These people are so tied together that they often weekend as a group at "The Hollow" Sir Henry and Lady Lucyís country estate just 18 miles from London.
Their other guests for this particular weekend are Dr. & Mrs. John Cristow. While neither one is a relative, it almost seems as though Mrs. Cristow might be related - she shares a certain vagueness with Lady Lucy while the doctor seems to share the passionate sensibilities of Henrietta and Midge. A temporary neighbor who keeps dropping by, Veronica Craye, is a Hollywood star with a passion for married men, particularly Dr. C. By the end of the first act one of these people is dead and the quest for the murderer is underway.
That brings in a creation of Christieís who was not in the original version of this story. She had tired of Hercule Poirot by the early 1950s and she replaced him with Inspector Colquhoun and his assistant in crime-solving, Detective Sergeant Penny.
Photographs of Christie in this period show her, a very wealthy woman, usually dressed in the shabby cast-offs of someone like Eleanor Roosevelt. Bundles for Britain were still the thing in this post WWII era and in the clothing designed for this production there is certainly an air of such largesse on display in the costume designs of Alyssa Couturier. These clothes help in that stereotype identification. On Abe Phelps usual, fine set the play is played out in an inexorable fashion as 1953 Britain appears to be just like 1948 Philadelphia.
John Trainor and Joan Coombs are the Lord and Lady of "The Hollow." He duck waddles and she prates. The silliness of her stream-of-conscious dialogue includes bon mots such as "Now where have I laid my eggs?" while his automatic responses include "I should come along and act as her interpreter." The truth is he must. Both of these actors are splendidly natural in their roles, comfortable in their bodies and left-over clothing. They each have at least one lovely, sentimental moment about their ancestry and their home. They make a lovely couple and excellent hosts in spite of forgetting who is coming and why.
Melissa Macleod Herion is Henrietta, the sculptress. She plays at keeping secrets and she plays at having emotions and she plays convincingly enough for a character whose depths are shallows. She is so busy being Henrietta that she sometimes jumps right over that character to become another character whose emotional base is very deep indeed. It is both disconcerting and very revealing for we never truly get to know how deep-seated Henriettaís personal deceptions might be. We only know that she regrets her life as it is being lived while at the same time finding excuses for herself. A fascinating realization of Christieís complex heroine.
Dominick Varney does well by Edward and Vanessa Dunleavy is an excellent Midge. Sky Vogel as the butler, Gudgeon, does just whatís heís supposed to do and he does it nicely.
Brian Edelman is the young Inspector. He gets through all of his lines and seems unperturbed by the murder and the juxtaposition of the murderer. He serves his function barely and is abetted with the humorous take on Sergeant Penny brought to life by Ben Katagiri. His is a womanizing copper with a sly take on taking a statement. The two work well together in these roles.
Veronica Craye is the unfortunate victim of the accent-challenged Kathleen Boddington. She tells her ex-lover that if she canít have him then the other woman in his life "cahnít HALVE you." She later admits that she "ahsked him to COMB over." Maybe itís just me but no one in Britain would say such things with a straight face and not expect someone to notice.
The Cristows are being portrayed by Patrick White and Kathleen M. Carey. White does a fine job until the end of Act One when he suddenly seemed to fall apart as a character. I donít know if there was a backstage glitch, but he suddenly floundered in his role, lost his accent and generally undid his wonderful impact on everyone earlier in the act. His performance was so good, in fact, that other actors lesser work was becoming excusable.
Carey, on the other hand, is a perfectly consistent delight all the way through her performance as Gerda Craye. This actress brings so much reality to her role that it becomes easy to forget that she is an actress in a role. It is almost as though Gerda came through to tell her stories, play out her part in the mystery, show and not tell. In the second act Carey plays a romantically crazy duet with the studyís sofa, a lovely partner in a fine set designed by Abe Phelps. She certainly has my vote for character actress perfecting her character as she goes.
This is not the best of Christie, but it does keep you guessing right up to the end and with a touch of romance, a touch of larceny and a touch of murder going for it, the playís two hours and fifteen minutes glide by like a trolley car with rags on its wheels. This theater has a history of doing Christie proud and with this play they do all that they can to maintain that record.
Kathleen M. Carey and Patrick White; photo provided
The Hollow plays at the Theater Barn on Route 20 just west of New Lebanon, NY through July 24. For information and tickets call the box office at 518-794-8989.