Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web is by far the funniest thing the Alley Theatre has produced all season.
What, you say? Agatha Christie funny? Is this some critical tongue in cheek back handed way of saying that the production ran off the rails in a funny ‘weird’, but not funny ‘ha-ha’ kind of manner? Let me assure you, I mean darn good and funny in all (or most of) the right ways. After all, the Christie we’re talking about here is the iconic writer’s 1954 lesser known comedic thriller Spider’s Web and the Alley, under the direction of Gregory Boyd, has taken this genre mash up and delivered it with great style, fizzy energy and many genuinely funny moments.
But then again, Boyd better have a handle on this show by now, he’s directed it twice already in his tenure at the Alley (1998 and 2005). This time the show comes to us courtesy of the resuscitated Summer Chills series, back on the boards after a two year hiatus due to the company's renovation and move back into its swanky face-lifted space. So while I do think it’s rather odd to be programming murder mysteries in the middle of summer, (is it just me or does that kind of show seem better served to time with Halloween or even the dreary cool month of February) Spider’s Web it turns out is a show with way more appeal than simply an air-conditioned escape from the 100-degree Houston heat.
The structure of the story is classic Christie. There’s a murder, there are multiple suspects, we think we know who the killer is, as does the detective investigating, but in the end and through some slightly spurious twists and turns, the real killer is exposed. Well, actually if we’re really paying attention, we probably know who the true killer is from the get go. But that’s really not the point when the ride is such humorous fun.
At the heart of the story is Clarissa Halisham-Brown (a seemingly ill-prepared Josie De Guzman – more on her later) the second wife of Henry( Paul Hope) an English Foreign Office diplomat. The couple has recently rented a large and luxuriously furnished house in the country where they live with Henry’s daughter Pippa (McKenna Marmolejo nicely channelling a 10-year-old girl). In true Christie fashion, the previous owner of the house has died “by accident” in mysterious circumstances with rumors that he was in secret possession of something extremely valuable.
Of course a fresh body is needed to keep things rolling along and so in steps Oliver Costello (Michael Brusasco), the new and shady husband of Henry’s ex-wife. Costello we believe has shown up at the house to either A. purloin the previous owner’s secret valuable thing or B. demand that Pippa’s custody be turned over to him and his detested wife. When his dead body is later discovered by Clarissa, she enlists the help of three guests staying at the house (played with delicious comic timing by Jeffrey Bean, John Tyson, and Jay Sullivan) to assist her in hiding the corpse. Or at least hide it until after her husband, ignorant to the whole affair, finishes an important meeting at the house later that evening.
In true funny mayhem fashion, it all goes to pot. The police show up. Clarissa spins tales as her legendary vivid imagination is known to do. The three guests scramble to get their stories straight. A ballsy gardener (played with great gusto by Margaret Daly) keeps budding in. And the detective (John Feltch channeling just the right amount of cop coolness) is either the smartest or dumbest officer ever to investigate a murder.
At one of the two intermissions (yes you read that right, it’s a bit of a long one) I overhead a woman say, “It isn’t what I expected. I thought it was going to be spooky or really mysterious. But instead it’s ridiculous, and I love it!” And that’s the thing. While the suspense part is fairly AWOL and the mystery aspect glimmers only slightly, what makes this show so utterly delightful is Boyd’s ability to tease out the comedy and let it shine.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the performances of the three gentlemen guests. In the play’s opening scene Bean and Tyson’s attempt to identify three different types of port while blindfolded in a wonderfully punchy send up of oenophile snobbery. Once the men (including Sullivan) have been coerced into Clarrisa’s murder cover-up, Boyd allows them to unleash a near farcically physical performance that thankfully remains this side of the Three Stooges. Tyson in particular has us heartily laughing as he panics holding a bloody kerchief in the presence of the detective. His return visits to the bar cart for a bracing brandy to settle his nerves never fails to amuse. Even the near misses as the detective keeps wandering in and out of the room interrupting the three gents’ scheming (causing them to scatter to all corners) are handled with entertaining believability and a deft eye for staging.
We laugh with them, we laugh at them and then we laugh even more so when Daly, the gardener, comes into the picture and shows them all that it takes a woman to do a man’s work in a murder cover up. Christie may have been writing in the 1950’s, but here she’s given us a female character far bolder and smarter than most of the men in the play.
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In fairness, Clarissa, despite her fanciful imaginings and “suppose if” games played to assuage a mostly boring life, is a sharp cookie too. She knows how to deflect and outwit in love and murder and Christie has blessed her with just as many comedic moments as her gentleman guests. But unfortunately as portrayed by De Guzman, Clarissa fails to impress. No critic can fault an actor for a flubbed line or two, but De Guzman bungled/stammered/searched for her lines many times throughout the play. Perhaps this is what distracted her from actually listening and reacting to her co actors. Instead, she rambled off lines somewhat robotically, too often smugly smiling to the audience as she delivered her zingers instead of participating in the ensemble action on stage. I have no doubt that the talent is there, and in total her performance wasn’t so off-putting as to lessen the fun of the show. But after reviewing her three times this year and finding her wanting to a greater or lesser degree, I’m hoping that in her next outing she gets paired up with a director that can bring out her unencumbered best.
On the subject of best, it’s almost a given that this kind of superlative is going to be tossed out when talking about set design at an Alley show and this one is no exception. With all the action taking place in the Halisham-Brown’s drawing room, Scenic Designer Linda Buchanan’s challenge was to create a set that we wouldn’t grow tired of and it’s a challenge well risen to. Using a soft harvest gold wall hue to offset filigree carvings and seemingly three story bookshelves replete with a secret passage, Buchanan gives us plenty of luxe (but not overly ornate) breathing room to happily watch three acts unfold.
There it is again, three acts. Perhaps the scariest thing about Spider’s Web is fear of how long the damn show is. But trust me, as a critic who yelps with glee when she learns that a show is 90 minutes with no intermission, I was more than happy to sit through this fast paced, almost three hour delight. Apparently the Alley was right. As I walked out into the humid steamy evening post play, not only was I glad for three hours in a lovely cool spot, but I was also tickled pink about how much fun was to be had in it.
Spider’s Web continues through August 14 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. For tickets, call 713-220-5700 or visit alleytheatre.org. $26- $69.