The Mousetrap Offers Solid Summer Chills at the Alley

Melissa Pritchett as Mollie Ralston in the Alley’s production of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap.
Melissa Pritchett as Mollie Ralston in the Alley’s production of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. Photo by Lynn Lane
If you’re assuming that just because it’s Agatha Christie, The Mousetrap must be about a group of trapped strangers, one of which is a killer, and the race to figure out which one it is, well, you’re right. But there’s a reason The Mousetrap has been running non-stop since 1952, even being named the longest running play of all time by the Guinness Book of Records, and those reasons are on full display in the Alley Theatre’s production.

Agatha Christie's classic whodunit opens with, you guessed it, a murder. The murder of Maureen Lyon is brief and offstage, before we’re taken to Monkswell Manor, where new proprietors Giles and Mollie Ralston are preparing to welcome their very first guests: architecture student Christopher Wren, complainer Mrs. Boyle, military man Major Metcalf, and the inscrutable Miss Casewell. Soon a fifth guest joins the group: Mr. Paravicini, whose crashed car has led him to seek shelter at the guest house, too. With a blizzard trapping the guests in the house, a call (and eventual visit) from a Sergeant Trotter comes; it seems that Maureen Lyon’s killer left a note at the scene of the crime with a reference to "Three Blind Mice,” which implies there will be more murders, along with the address of Monkswell Manor. As Trotter interviews/interrogates the guests, it turns out all of them are hiding something, but what is the question. And what exactly does all of this have to do with the sensational Longridge Farm case, which involved three abused children, one of whom died?

Director James Black helms a tight production here. One of the biggest threats to Christie’s play is the pacing, which can be a little slow for modern audiences, especially in the last half of the first act and first half of the second. But Black’s production never wavers or drags, and a lot of that has to do with the terrific ensemble cast.
When the Ralstons talk about all their guests being odd, they’re not wrong. With the exception of the distinguished and fairly good-natured Major Metcalf, played by Shawn Hamilton, it’s quite the cast of characters that populate Monkswell Manor.

Alice M. Gatling is snooty and perpetually displeased as Mrs. Boyle. The “perfectly horrible woman” (per Christopher Wren) is always ready with a snide comment, whether it be about the Ralstons’ lack of experience, possible dry rot, or the house needing another coat of paint. It’s a testament to Gatling that mere minutes after walking on stage, the audience breaks into applause and woos at the suggestion that she leave Monkswell Manor if she’s so unhappy.

On the other side of the personality spectrum is Dylan Godwin’s Christopher Wren. Excitable and downright giddy at times, Wren is equally likely to restlessly move around the stage as he is to impulsively drop to the floor, but his puppy dog-like charm and weird enthusiasm make it easy to see why Mollie immediately takes a liking to him, while Giles, who calls him a “twerp,” doesn’t.

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(L-R) Chris Hutchison as Giles Ralston, Shawn Hamilton as Major Metcalf, Dylan Godwin as Christopher Wren, Melissa Pritchett as Mollie Ralston, and Jay Sullivan as Sergeant Trotter in the Alley’s production of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap.
Photo by Lynn Lane
Both Wren and Miss Casewell, played by Elizabeth Bunch, are described by different characters as “peculiar,” probably for their non-conforming ways and/or perceived sexuality. And Bunch does bring a brusque independence to her character, one that makes her stand out from the others, but that doesn’t mean she’s above busting out a jaunty little dance to get what she wants.

The last guest to arrive is the unexpected and uninvited Paravicini. Where Miss Casewell is severe in personality, Todd Waite’s Paravicini is severe in appearance. The Italian, with his cryptic statements, shoeless-ly creeping around and one-finger piano playing, is seemingly going out of his way to arouse suspicion, an aspect of the character (along with the accent) that Waite handles with ease.

Jay Sullivan’s Sergeant Trotter exhibits a dogged determination and zealous commitment to his task, but it’s his handling of the play’s climax that is most impressive, as well as the intensity he brings to a second act scenes with Bunch and Melissa Pritchett.

As Mollie, Pritchett is a likeable ingénue, one who gets wound up tighter as the play goes on. She plays well off the traditional English masculinity of Chris Hutchison’s Giles. (And not for nothing, Pritchett lets out one heck of a scream as the lights fall for intermission.)

Scenic Designer Linda Buchanan’s take on Monkswell Manor provides the perfect backdrop for the claustrophobic play, implying greater size while still feeling quite contained. The large cathedral window in the center of the set’s high wooden walls, is perfect not only for its snowy view, but for a little bit of comedy. Sound Designers Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen also deserve credit for contributing to the comedy; the radio broadcasts not only provide mood, but a couple of good gags too.

From Miss Casewell’s grey striped linen suit to Christopher Wren’s school boy cardigans to Paravicini’s long black leather coat (matching his black moustache and black hair pulled back into a ponytail), Costume Designer Tricia Barsamian makes sure we know who these characters are just by looking at them.

And finally, Michael Lincoln’s effective use of cool lighting proves very effective, as well as the subtle lowering of the lights as each day grows darker. The golden light that illuminates the play’s final confrontation is also a bold (and successful) choice.

As it says at the start, there’s a reason why The Mousetrap has such longevity, and after seeing it at the Alley, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect production.

Performances will continue at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through September 16 in Alley Theatre's Hubbard Theatre, 615 Texas. For more information, call 713-220-5700 or visit $26 to $49.
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Natalie de la Garza is a contributing writer who adores all things pop culture and longs to know everything there is to know about the Houston arts and culture scene.