Clarissa (Elizabeth Heflin, pictured with Todd Waite) 
    charms every man she encounters -- and the 
Clarissa (Elizabeth Heflin, pictured with Todd Waite) charms every man she encounters -- and the audience.
Bruce Bennett

Classic Christie

The opening of Spider's Web is classic Agatha Christie. The setting is a proper English drawing room. Through the stately windows, we can see that it's a dark and stormy night. At center stage stand two serious-looking men, and one is blindfolded. Something utterly nefarious is under way. But the evil lurking in the Alley Theatre's charmed production of this comic whodunit remains a fabulous mystery till the nail-biting end.

This is a thriller with twists and turns galore. Besides the blindfolded man, there's the matter of the desk with a secret drawer -- the one strangers have been trying to get at. There's also the newly hired servant and his wife, who are supposed to be out for the evening but show up hours earlier than expected. And how about that character of a gardener (played by a delightfully kooky Bettye Fitzpatrick), the one who recently dug a trench the size of a grave on the property? Only one thing's for certain: Clarissa Hailsham-Brown (Elizabeth Heflin), the pretty redhead at the center of this story, is absolutely not the killer.

Not that our heroine doesn't think about murder now and again. One of her favorite games is "supposing" what she'd do if she discovered a dead body in her drawing room. See, the imaginative Clarissa is a bit bored with her happy life in the English countryside. It's true that her husband takes excellent care of her, her step-daughter adores her, and her guardian lives to make her life sweet. All she really needs is a little bit of excitement to make her life rich. And she gets that in full when she actually does stumble over a corpse sprawled out across her drawing-room floor.


Spider's Web

Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-228-8421

Through July 31. $19.

What to do? What to do? Of course, she ought to call the police. But no, she can't do that, and for more than one reason. Her husband is supposed to bring home an important client, and how would it look if a bunch of bobbies were running about the place investigating a murder while they were trying to conduct business? Even more important is the fact that Pippa (Lauren Opper), Clarissa's seemingly innocent teenage step-daughter, might have something to do with the murder.

There's only one thing for our resourceful English rose to do: Get rid of the body. For that she needs help, and to her rescue come three delightfully silly stooges as soon as she rings them up. Of course, when the police arrive in response to a mysterious phone call, all hell breaks loose. Everyone in the lucky audience gets terrific, show-stealing, spirited clowning from Alley veteran funnymen Jeffrey Bean, John Tyson and Ty Mayberry.

In fact, as directed by Gregory Boyd, the entire cast is immensely likable. Heflin, who's positively glowing these days, is especially lovely as the supremely mischievous and good-natured Clarissa. As Clarissa works her feminine wiles on every man she encounters, she charms the audience as well. She makes leaping over dead bodies look like great fun as she trots about the drawing room trying to figure out how to make things right. Philip Lehl plays the only obviously malevolent character in the play, Oliver Costello, with all the oily ease of a hungry shark, pacing about Clarissa's fancy digs in his ill-fitting gray-striped suit and slick pointy shoes. James Belcher, who plays an oddly secretive servant named Elgin, is good at looking naughty. And in her plaid pinafore, Opper makes a perfect English schoolgirl.

Agatha Christie's Spider's Web is terribly long by today's standards. It's a regular theatrical marathon; all three acts, complete with two intermissions, take three hours. What a wonder it is, then, that the Alley Theatre's production of the classic whodunit is so delightfully persuasive that audience members (many of whom were children on opening night) stay pinned to the edges of their seats until the surprising end.


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