Spiderís Web by Agatha Christie. Directed by Allen E. Phelps.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Melissa Macleod Herrion and John Trainor; photo provided
Antoun, Preston and Trainor; photo provided
"Itís all very hush-hush. . .but this is real life."
A woman who invents stories and has trouble with the truth tells the truth and cannot make herself believed in this farcical comedy by mystery maven Agatha Christie. Written in 1954, this very successful British play is stuffed with images and allusions and off-stage characters who never appear. They jammed into a messy murder of the one on-stage character you are set-up to dislike and after he is killed it becomes a matter of clearing up the two principal questions: who killed him and who called the police? The whole matter is cleared up in two and a half hours and the wonder of it all is how many questions are still left unanswered and how much fun you have had not caring about such things.
At the Theatre Barn in New Lebanon, the current production of this play is inhabited by actors who make this whole mish-mash work well. A few old favorites, John Trainor and John Philip Cromie and Sam Slack are joined by some relatively new faces, Melissa Macleod Herrion and Kaitlin S. Pearson with the always delightful Kathleen Carey thrown into the mix.
As mysteries go, this one has the requisite surprises and although there are some genuine clues to the identity of the killer so much happens so fast that they are easily missed. Allen E. Phelps has kept the play moving inexorably forward and as a result details are sometimes lost in the rapidly spouted dialogue, particularly in the second act. Three men are aiding the heroine, Clarissa Hailsham-Brown, to move and hide the dead manís body. They are played by Trainor, Joe Antoun and Casey Preston. Each man brings fine qualities to his character, although the accents assumed do make Preston hard to understand at times and Antoun seem very much out of his depth. Trainor, an old hand at these roles, is excellent. Even though weíve already had a full act in preparation for this moment, our ears never quite become accustomed to the many accents and timbres of these three menís voices. Antoun plays with sincerity and that helps establish his character nicely. Prestonís character depends on youth and a sort of male glamor that also establishes him. Ultimately we find ourselves understanding them both, but it takes a while.
Herionís Clarissa, on the other hand, is a perfectly wonderful, slightly ditsy, English heroine, the sort who can tell a lie without batting an eyelash, getting away with it, and then tell the truth with a blush and a giggle and easily convince a gullible police officer that there is something completely wrong in the reality he is presented. Her performance in this role is nothing short of remarkable.
Pearson as the daughter who understands the meaning of complicity is June perfect as is Cromie as the Police Inspector who comes to investigate a crime for which, ultimately, there is no body. Jason Tamborini is very good as the Constable who assists him and Brian E. Plouffe plays the proto-typical mystery butler to a fare-thee-well.
It is Kathleen Carey, however, as Mildred Peake, who truly rings in the sounds of Christie, calling to mind the many British character actresses who have addressed such roles throughout the last fifty years of the twentieth century. Playing against the physical necessities of the role, she is convincing and personable, hilarious and serious at the same time, in a Margaret Rutherford sort of way. There are those women in English films, sturdy, large-boned, masculine in tone wearing menís suits, who seem quite capable of picking up the lifeless body of a man, slinging him over a shoulder and carrying him up a flight of stairs. That is Mildred Peake, and though Carey doesnít fit the bill, she acts as though she does and she makes her character one hundred percent believable.
Michelle Bohnís lovely costumes set this play in a time not our own and Abe Phelps set, with some pieces remarkably familiar from other Christie shows in this house, add immeasurably to the pleasure of watching this play. Tracey Richardson tries some very tricky lighting effects that work.
Allen Phelps direction of the play, as noted, involves some lightning repartee and some effectively charming stage effects. He has kept his actors on track in defining their characters and the entire success of the evening is settled in the right casting of the roles and the right direction of those actors.
You donít come out scratching your head in wonderment, but you do leave the theater chortling over the oddness of the piece. Later on you may wonder exactly what was done, or said and why things were the way they were, and was there something to do with Voodoo, or foreign diplomats, or did you imagine it. No fear. This overstuffed British turkey is a delicious meal indeed.
Spiderís Web plays through July 25 at the Theatre Barn on Route 20 in New Lebanon, NY. For information and tickets call the box office at 518-794-8989.