THE MOUSETRAP (McCarter): Christie brought to life

Excerpted by kind permission from Neals Paper.

Director Adam Immerwahr and a wonderful cast make this piece that’s been running as long in London as Queen Elizabeth II alive with an energy that belies the play’s age.

It would be hard to imagine a better, or more thoughtfully conceived staging of Agatha Christie’s classic. Immerwahr keeps everything edge-of-your-seat suspenseful, while eking scads of legitimate laughs and allowing characters to develop so they seem big and individual, yet everyday and authentic.

In typical Christie style, a group of people arrive at an English country site, in this case a guest house opening to its first round of residents, on an occasion when exit is impossible (a blinding, road-closing snowstorm) and murder is planned, the murdered blending invisibly among the assembled. Immerwahr’s gift is making all seem so natural and nonchalant, even after a murder takes place and the murderer is easily associated with a killing in London. People who may seem extreme on the surface prove to be less bizarre as THE MOUSETRAP proceeds, and each of the denizens of Monkswell Manor, the drawing room of which is beautifully and interestingly designed by Alexander Dodge, is a potential suspect and potential victim.

Immerwahr has fun with Christie’s inspired notion to have a police detective (Richard Gallagher) ski in to Monkswell to begin an investigation tying to the London murder. Just as characters talk excitedly about seeing a man with skis go by, Gallagher passes the drawing room windows gives a friendly, enthusiastic wave to the Monkswell guests also looking at him. Red herrings abound, and Immerwahr and company make each of them count, and each of them fun. As with any smart production of a mystery, you look back at past scenes from the perspective of knowing what comes next and marvel at how well future incidents were foreshadowed or at least hinted at.

Pace and personality add to Immerwahr’s staging. Time seems to glide by naturally. Tension always hovers over the Monkswell setting while characters attempt to be as routine as they can with a detective nosing about. None of Christie’s clues, or jokes, is missed. Even the description of the London culprit becomes funny beyond its desert in this excellent, cunningly crafted production that has so much seem mundane when nothing is mundane, and all is fraught with danger.

Jessica Bedford is superb as the guest host owner who attempts to please her tenants, cook meals, and tend to the detective as she worries visibly about whom the murdered might be. Especially when clues make it clear the murderer might be looking for people involved in a specific incident from decades earlier.

Emily Young as Miss Casewell. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Andy Phelan is fun as a sensitive guest who can be more openly gay—as Immerwahr chooses him to be—in 2016 than in 1952. Phelan is quite entertaining with his fey approach to his character—an architect who calls himself Christopher Wren. His performance contrasts well with Emily Young’s as a young woman who has recently returned to England after living on Majorca for more than a decade.

Sandra Shipley is beyond excellent as a demanding, exacting, and meticulous former judge who criticizes Bedford’s character’s housekeeping and oversights as a first-time landlord and who has some disapproving words for everyone at Monkswell. Shipley is particularly good in the scene in which she discusses a judge’s habits and responsibilities. Her Mrs. Boyle is a woman of high British standards, complete with tweeds and a penchant for complaining and offering advice.

Meanwhile, Adam Green, who has made a name playing antic roles in The Figaro Plays and Baskerville, is fine at being ordinary and serious as the easily irritated co-owner (with Bedford, his wife) of the guest home. Green, like Phelan and Thom Sesma as the mysterious and somewhat oily Paravicini, draw a lot of suspicion in their direction, and it’s wonderful to see how they are all drop clues and respond to the idea someone might believe they are guilty. Sesma makes Paravicini unreserved in every sense of the word. He delights as he teases Richard Gallagher’s skiing detective by practically laughing in his face every time he tries a new gambit for foiling the murderer.

Gallagher is superb. In keeping with 1950s behavior and 21st century coolness, he never loses his calm, businesslike demeanor. He is witty as he goes about his police business, countering anything any suspect can say and warning the Monkswell residents to take him and the possibility of being murdered seriously. Christie gives her detective , Sgt. Trotter,  a gift for logic and for cutting through excuses and potential alibis. She also makes him direct about his pursuit. Gallagher gives a shrewd performance that doesn’t waste any of the gifts Christie, or Immerwahr, gives him and adds to the bounty with his own cunning.

Graeme Malcolm, McCarter’s sturdy Scrooge for the past several seasons of “A Christmas Carol,” is solid and, once again, natural as a retired military officer who plans to settle at Monkswell, where he can find lodging 30 miles by train from London at seven pounds a week.

Immerwahr satisfies all requirements in terms of mystery, suspense, comedy, entertainment, and plain old theater with this production. It defines what theater is about and how marvelous, amusing, and worthy is can be.

He is abetted cleverly by Alexander Dodge whose drawing room walls converge towards upstage on both side so the parlor looks trapezoidal, whose ceiling with set with what looks like plaster, or cement, dreidels suspended without purpose from the ceiling and a marvelous window that is used so handily, and not only to witness Gallagher’s Trotter skiing to duty.

Jess Goldstein’s costumes are equally appropriate, boyish flamboyant clothes for Wren, boyish tailored clothes for Young’s Miss Casewell, and perfect suits for the other men. Philip S. Rosenberg’s lighting can show the brightness of the home Bedford and Green are trying to advance as a guest residence while becoming ominous and threatening when necessary. Blackouts are particularly effective. Nick Kourtidas sound design also goes between the mundane and the portentous. Immerwahr’s production is a gem. Like Act II’s Driving Miss Daisy, it shows how a play that seems familiar and perhaps old-hat, can be vibrant, immediate, and oh so exhilarating. Read more on Neals Paper >>

[McCarter Theatre, 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ] March 8-27, 2016;



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