The Alley Theatre is a great fan of Dame Agatha Christie, mystery novelist and the best-selling author of all time. Many of her novels have been turned into plays, and the Alley in its 66-year history has had 21 prior productions of her plays, with The Hollow its 22nd. The first production of The Hollow in London in 1951 had difficulty in raising money and casting because many felt it was poorly written, but when it opened in London after an eight-week tour, it received enthusiastic reviews and ran for almost a year.
The set, designed by Linda Buchanan, is magnificent, the garden room of an estate, with towering walls and glass-paned doors opening onto a terrace. It reeks of great wealth and conservative opulence, and is handsome indeed, with impressive detailing. Act One is filled with the usual exposition, handled well, as we meet the characters, ten in residence, with the traditional Inspector and bumbling aide entering later.
James Black plays Sir Henry Angkatell as respectable and reserved, without warmth or charm; Black can provide both as needed, but the playwright didn't see the need. Lucy, Lady Angkatell, is played by Josie de Guzman, and she is the best thing in the play. Lucy is absent-minded, a bit dotty, but with a keen judgment and an insightful turn of phrase; de Guzman brings an antic auntie-Mame joie de vivre to the party, and is delightful.
Modern mystery dramas these days have vivid characters, but such is not the case here, except for the actress Veronica Craye staying at a cottage nearby, played by Laura E. Campbell with a fervor and exaggerated style that had me thinking of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. This may be the moment to share that much of the acting here is pretty bad - following the script.
Jay Sullivan was powerful and nuanced as Prince Nikita Starloff in the Alley's recent Sherlock Holmes adventure, but here he plays a wealthy twit who has zero self-awareness, and proposes in the course of the play to two women, as well as attempting suicide. In line with the mandate of the script, and the director, he succeeds in making his character a bore.
Henrietta, portrayed by Elizabeth Bunch, is a sculptor of avant-garde art, but shows no artistic flair in her performance, which is rather serious and glum. Midge Harvey, played by Emily Neves, is a poor-relation cousin who is too proud to accept financial aid from her very wealthy relatives, preferring to grumble about her uninteresting job. (Judging by the size of the garden room, and all those windows, the heating bill for Henry's mansion must be about the national debt of Bulgaria.) Midge could be played as lively, sweet and appealing, but her character tends to give sermons, and I looked in vain for the appeal.
The butler, Gudgeon, is portrayed by Alley stalwart Todd Waite, though he might be better named Dudgeon, as he is angry throughout, and speaks very loudly, almost a shout, odd indeed for a servant. He does add two hand gestures which were amusing, and I assume he is following the direction of Gregory Boyd, artistic director of the Alley, who helmed this play. Diandra Langenbach plays Doris, the maid, and is persuasive in her minor role.
Guests at the estate are Dr. John Cristow (Mark Shanahan) and his wife Gerda (Melissa Pritchett), and the plot, such as it is, revolves around them. Cristow is meant to have unusual appeal to the opposite sex, but he is brusque and stolid, and I kept thinking: "She can do better!" Gerda is written to be clumsy, with no poise, and Pritchett found the character perhaps too well, as she is irritating. The subtle Lee Sellars, who was excellent at the Alley in A Few Good Men, plays Inspector Colquhoun, and is creditable in a role with no relish. David Matranga, who lit up the stage in Mistakes Were Made at Stages, overplays the comic role of the second banana detective, who is positively gaga over Doris. There are some amusing lines, and some amusing bits of business, but not enough to salvage this voyage.
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Some inept acting, and casting, made me wonder if director Boyd saw the piece as period, and subject to parody, with out-of-date acting styles. But, since the play is set "Today", that wouldn't make any sense. The blocking (movements of the characters) is old-fashioned, with characters too frequently finding themselves center stage and looking out, or moving without motivation to suit directorial convenience, and there is an especially painful moment at the end when Gerda gets up from the couch to move to center stage to deliver a key line, then resumes her seat. The acting style is British: "hit the mark and say your lines" and I kept searching - in vain, except for de Guzman - for signs that the actors believed for a minute what they were saying. And there are careless moments - twice references are made to a character having entered through a window when it was a door - and I may as well mention that freshly cut flowers require water in the vase.
The play has three acts, which were the norm in 1951, but the Alley could easily have staged it with today's preferred two acts, with no dramatic loss, as there is a natural break in the middle of Act Two. The play lacks suspense, and has few twists, and fewer surprises. It is yesterday's news with a fresh coat of paint. As usual at the Alley, it received a standing ovation on opening night. The verdict:
This is a so-so script, without flair, or especial interest, or suspense, and a so-so production, except for a magnificent set, and an exciting performance by Josie de Guzman.
The Hollow continues through August 4, at Alley Theatre, 615 Texas St. For information or ticketing, call 713-220-5700, or contact www.alleytheatre.org.