After the murder, a woman sitting toward the back of the Alley Theatre pulled out her binoculars, carefully scanning each surviving actor's face for some telltale clue.
That, and the overheard talk in the lobby during intermission at the preview performances of Agatha Christie's The Hollow, in which who-do-you-think-did-it trumped what-are-you-doing-this-summer conversations, has actor/director Mark Shanahan convinced that the Alley Theatre's Summer Chills offering has audiences fully engaged.
Coming off the huge success of the Alley's production of Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Suicide Club, which he co-directed, Shanahan has changed hats, moving to actor in this lesser known work by the late, great playwright and book author Agatha Christie.
Shanahan plays a doctor and an English cad, but insists his Dr. John Cristow has redeeming qualities and a pivotal role in the proceedings.
"The Angkatells, Sir Henry and Lady Lucy, invite people to their home for the weekend most of whom are somehow related by marriage or birth. My wife and I are the only ones who are not related although we seem to have a big effect on them. Because they are a family of some sort, they close ranks and there are a lot of secrets the way families know how to keep them. Those secrets gradually become revealed," Shanahan says.
"This is the one the Alley hasn't done before. So nobody involved with it is coming to it with preconceived ideas about how this play should play out," Shanahan says. "Greg [Alley Artistic Director Gregory Boyd who is directing] loves these plays so much that he teases out things that I think most people miss and he treats them like the masterpieces that he believes they are in many cases."
Despite this, there's a certain reliability in an Agatha Christie play, something Houston audiences have come to expect and appreciate. There's mystery, murder, a puzzle to solve and a healthy dose of dry humor as well.
"Sure the conceit is always fun. People show up at the country house, something dastardly happens and then the rest of them have to sit sround while someone or several someones has a terrible secret," Shanahan says. "Everyone is guilty. They might not be guilty of the murder in the play but they're guilty of something. In fact they might have been considering murder themselves but they didn't get a chance to go through with it. They're a lot of people with vicious ideas in this play, one of the things I love about it."
Everyone is decked out in beautiful clothes; they come down to dinner wearing their finest. "It's all very glamorous yet for all this civil behavior, these are vicious people capable of doing the unthinkable," Shanahan says.
Christie wrote this play in the late 1940s, after first writing it as a novel. What people who've read the novel won't find on stage is her most famous detective, Hercule Poirot.
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"She had this love hate affair with the detective. She thought she ruined this wonderful book by putting Poirot into it. So when it came time to write the play, she took Poirot out and created another inspector for us, more workmanlike and one who seems as human as the other characters," Shanahan says. "Poirot is like a supersleuth and is always the most interesting thing in the story. Inspector Calhoun is a working stiff Scotland Yarder. Christie replaced him as she did in Murder on the Nile and others."
"Everyone knows The Mousetrap, and Then There Were None, Murder on the Orient Express," Shanahan says. "This play seems like an unknown masterpiece. It is a little bit different than those other ones. Sometimes when she writes the murder mysteries, the focus in on the murder mysteries. This seems to be a play about great characters. They're really sad people in many ways although they're laughing. The title of the play refers to the house called The Hollow, but they all have some hollow portion of their soul."
"She keeps it very suspenseful. One of the best parts is the dramatic entrances. One after another come on with their dramatic problems. There is not a prop that's not important. There's not a costume or a line that is just a throwaway," Shanahan promises.
Performances of Agatha Christie's The Hollow are scheduled through August 4 at the Alley Theatre's Hubbard Stage, 615 Texas Avenue. For information call 713-220-5700 or visit alleytheatre.org.