Killer Play

Wondering whodunit is just a fraction of the fun in Agatha Christie's wonderfully droll 1952 mystery The Mousetrap. In fact, the real excitement comes from all the oddballs who traipse into the author's rather stately, stiff-upper-lip English world. Pinched and delightfully repressed, the cantankerous guests of drafty old Monkswell Manor (where murder is bound to happen) are the best part of Christie's fine classic. And nobody knows that better than the wild cast of the Alley Theatre's hilarious production; they are clearly having the time of their lives in director Gregory Boyd's charming Summer Chills event.

Before the stage lights come up, a radio announcement reveals that a local woman has just been murdered and that the "police are anxious to interview a man seen in the vicinity, wearing a dark overcoat, a light scarf and a soft felt hat." Pretty Mollie Ralston (Robin Terry) sweeps into the manor bearing a package that she promptly secrets away under the couch. In true Christie style, the author has us worried about Mrs. Ralston before we even know who she is.

When her husband shows up, wearing a dark overcoat, a light scarf and a soft felt hat, the audience can't help but murmur, especially when young Mrs. Ralston straightens up after the handsome Mr. Ralston (Ty Mayberry) just when the radio is reiterating the suspect's getup. These are the sort of perfectly timed moments that make Christie's work so indomitable. That's especially true when the moment is repeated later, when yet another person enters the house wearing a dark overcoat, a light scarf and a soft felt hat. Everyone's a suspect; even Mrs. Ralston is keeping a secret.

Soon the guests start arriving. How merry it is when Philip Lehl sails into the room as the lovable lunatic Christopher Wren. Lehl has given some of the most intelligent and tender performances of any young actor in Houston. But never before has he created such a thoroughly playful clown as he has in Wren. With his hair frizzed up into a high top hat of blond curls, his woolen trousers hitched up above his waist and his brightly colored tie cut off at the sternum, Wren is the model of boyish strangeness. Like an annoying gadfly, he prattles on about everything. The old-fashioned architecture is "heavenly," English husbands are "very boorish," and worrying about murderers on the loose is "deliciously macabre!"

His romping eccentricity is matched only by the amusing priggishness of Anne Quackenbush's Mrs. Boyle. Looking at least 20 years older than her age, the usually lovely Quackenbush makes a convincing mean old bag. She spends her time screeching complaints. She worries that the house has dry rot and informs her hostess that she's got "worm" in her oak furniture. The rooms are too loud, too cold and too dusty.

Suffering Mrs. Boyle's irritability are Elizabeth Heflin's mannish Miss Casewell, who chain-smokes and has the men wondering "if she is a female." James Belcher's seemingly mild-mannered Major Metcalf is gentlemanly enough to sweeten the sourpuss of Mrs. Boyle, who eventually gazes in his direction with love-struck eyes. John Tyson's mysterious Mr. Paravicini sounds an awful lot like Boris Kolenkhov, a character Tyson played earlier this season in the Alley's terrific production of You Can't Take It With You. But even when he's sitting back on his laurels, Tyson is able to turn in a solid performance.

After the guests arrive, the police show up in the form of Jeffrey Bean's Detective Sergeant Trotter, who skis in because of ice-bound roads. Murder is surely in the offing now as the phone lines have been cut! All it takes is a dark night, some creepy music and a creaking door.

What follows is some serious sleuthing. The detective's skis turn up missing. Wren is young enough to be the supposed murderer. Miss Casewell drops enough hints about her childhood to make her suspect. Unable to account for his earlier whereabouts, Mr. Ralston seems up to no good. And Mrs. Ralston runs off to the kitchen every time the questions get too pointed. The murderer could be anyone and everyone.

Without these terrific characters, we wouldn't care all that much. Actually, once the characters stop bickering and start concentrating on whodunit, the energy of the show drops off. But Boyd's direction manages to keep the story focused. His clever touches include putting the fireplace front and center so we get to watch the characters as they watch one another in the mirror above the mantel. With a group of performers as good as this, we don't want to miss any sideways glances or private exchanges.

As with all Christie's work, only the lucky will guess the murderer before he (or she) is announced. But that hardly matters. The real fun is watching it all unfold in the hands of this capable cast.

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Lee Williams