The Unexpected Guestby Agatha Christie. Directed by Allen E. Phelps.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"We, none of us, dare talk to each other."
Brittany Silver, John Trainor, Meg Dooley in rehearsal; photo provided
Secrets, secrets shared on a dark and foggy night, mist covering a dead body sitting in front of open French doors in a Welsh manse, secrets inform us that we are in Agatha Christie land. A woman, beautiful, blonde, busty, dressed to kill stands over the body holding a still smoking gun - or is that just so much mist as well? Lights flash in the distance. There is a squeal of brakes, more lights, moving in this direction, toward the open door, toward the blonde with the piece, toward the room with the body. The blonde moves to a recess in the room, hiding herself from the unexpected guest. The mystery is on.
It is on for two weeks at the Theater Barn in New Lebanon, NY. This is a play that this company has presented before. But good Christie is great fun and remembering who the actual killer is makes this a challenge indeed. Dame Agatha is a snake-charmer, actually, and we cannot predict easily in which direction the snake’s head will be going. At least four people who can be found in this house are self-confessed murderers but did any of them actually kill Richard Warwick is the question. The author is the Queen of the red herring and one after another each honest person is revealed as a liar until there is only one possible killer and that conclusion is totally impossible.
That said, and that is more than enough, let us examine this production and its cast.
Laura Warwick, wife/widow of the victim is played here by Brittany Silver making her Theater Barn debut in this role. She is one of those actresses who, if innocence and guilt is a part of the play, will always look guilty. She has that kind of face and bust. Silver makes the transition from guilt to innocence to guilt a perennially insistent course. We want to believe her even when we know the truth and we’re not hearing it from her mouth. Silver, though, makes it hard to accept anything she says or does. Even the final moment of this play, which is hers, is not quite believable and yet not really false. She wears her secrets well, Ms. Silver or Mrs. Warwick.
Kathleen Carey takes on the role of Miss Bennett, caretaker and custodian of the family secrets. Everyone depends upon her and if that isn’t reason enough for murder I don’t know what is. Carey could walk through a wall and make it seem credible and in this play she is given no opportunity to shine, so she does. Her timing is superb even when a light cue is called late. This actress can save that moment.
Meg Dooley plays the dead man’s mother with a faltering fragility that is just right for the role. Her unspoken role in the proceedings is punctuated with furtive looks and shy gestures and monologues that are compelling.
John Philip Cromie underplays too much as the male nurse, Henry Angell. In his blackmail scene with Stephen Powell as Julian Farrar both actors pull back, or reign in, the pulsating moments making them less important and so less important to us as we try to understand how one thing relates to another here. Powell, in fact, is bereft of passion and that is a mistake in this play. Julian’s ardor is a key to understanding at least one mistake made by at least two suspects.
John Trainor makes the most of Inspector Thomas, sometimes dealing with one prop too many as he moves through the dead man’s house. Trainor is good in this under-sized role that it is hard to imagine a Christie mystery without him in it.
As his assistant in the investigation, Levi Squier turned Sgt. Cadwallader into both a champion of justice and true gentleman in this manage of snapping beasts. His thick accent was the finest of the night and worth the price of admission all by itself.
Ken Dillon has the most difficult role of all, Michael Starkwedder, the Unexpected Guest. In spite of his much touted British Tradition connection, his portrayal of a right and proper Englishman with strong Scottish and Welsh applicability leaves a bit too much to our imagination. He has yet to learn how to hold a stage in a melodrama such as this. He plays a part in this story that must have resonance and on opening night Dillon was not vibrating with even half of that in place. Starkwedder’s self-assurance is a solid key and clue to the mystery and Dillon may well get it before the run ends, but he truly needs it for the play to work.
One problem here may be Allen E. Phelps direction. Timing and pace are so important in these mystery plays and if something takes even two seconds too long to achieve it does not make it’s impression on our unconscious brains. Phelps has staged the play appropriately and helped his actors into the often too thin skins of their characters but he has not buttoned actions and he has not metronomed his revelations. These sound like awful things to do, but they are crucial to the honest enjoyment of Christie’s revelations throughout the play. It may well be that the actors need audiences to get them on the proper path to achieving what the director wants and this was the first such event. However, the director seems to have taken pauses where none are needed and left some cataclysmic notions on low heat on a back burner.
None of this holds true in the performance by Ben Katagiri as the dim-witted Jan Warwick, the victim’s brother. Throughout his performance and timing are flawless and his relationships are clearly developed. Without a doubt, right now, this is the best performance in the play and finest work from this excellent stage set by Abe Phelps.
Allen Phelps lighting is just right for the mystery that begins at lights up and ends three seconds before lights out. Christie holds our attention for that long and the final moment will leave you wondering strange things about the play’s character relationships.
I always enjoy a good mystery and this one gets me every time. I may moan about timing or besmirch an element of the work, but nothing lowers the outside temperature better than a good Agatha Christie murder mystery and you cannot take that encomium out of the equation here. It’s a fun night in the theater and good mystery as well.
The Unexpected Guest plays at the Theater Barn, located at 654 Route 20, New Lebanon, NY through July 21. For information and tickets call the box office at 518-794-8989 or go on line to www.theaterbarn.com.