An engaging cast, substantial suspense and a series of surprises combine to produce an excellent evening of entertainment in the Agatha Christie mystery A Murder Is Announced at Theatre Suburbia. Set in an English country house with disparate guests (no surprise here), the plot revolves around a very convoluted will in which who dies first matters enormously. You may want to reach for aspirin in trying to follow the intricacies of the denouement, but better think twice as nothing is quite as it seems in this thriller.
The play begins deceptively simply with a dispute as to who borrowed the morning paper, a domestic crisis soon made irrelevant as the bodies start dropping.
Presiding over house and guests is the benevolent owner Letitia Blacklock, played with great skill by Kathy Davis, whose talent and poise hold together the household - and the play. Without her the play might have foundered, as the plot has more holes than Swiss cheese and more twists than a corkscrew, but in her capable hands we settle down into an evening of delight and wait for the sherry to be passed.
Surprisingly, the maid, played by Courtney Furgason with a strong presence and superb comic timing, is here not just for exposition and to carry in the tea. She is a fully fleshed out character with an important part to play - and play it well she does.
The cast of 12 (two parts are quite brief) is ably directed by Barbara Hartman, and deftly shepherded into varying tableaux on the attractive, well-appointed set, though I'm puzzled why characters turn their backs on partners to march downstage and look into the distance.
Some of the gentle humor of the play goes unrealized in the drive toward intensity, but Hartman has succeeded in establishing ensemble acting that adds genuine appeal. An exception is Miss Marple, played by Melrose Fougere in such a diffident, understated way that it appears she wandered in from another play.
And I was surprised that Inspector Craddock (David James Barron) was not more authoritative, though I found the character likable - perhaps this was a directorial choice.
The pace is admirable, the lighting effective, and surprises occur with a frequency that keeps us alert and tune -in, wondering what on earth is coming next in this pleasant divertissement, intended to entertain rather than instruct and succeeding with style and a flourish. The play runs through May 14 at Theatre Suburbia, 4106 Way Out West Road. For information, call 713-682-3525.
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