The Unexpected Guest Will Keep You Guessing Until the Very End

Murder, an illicit love affair and a blackmailing nurse add up to an unusually exciting Summer Chills production from the Alley Theatre this year. Agatha Christie is often on the seasonal bill, but few of the Alley's productions of works by the grande dame of whodunits have been as surprising and as engaging as director James Black's version of The Unexpected Guest.

The story opens on a dark, foggy night. All is ominous. There's shadowy half-light seeping in through the enormous French doors lining the back wall of designer Kevin Rigdon's country English study. Joe Pino's sound design is rich with eerie music, signaling something dangerous is creeping about. A man appears at the window. He waits, then steps into the enormous paneled study, where he finds a dead man slumped in a wheelchair. From out of the shadows steps a beautiful woman holding a pistol in her dainty hand.

The opening is terrifically foreboding — full of fun melodrama and lovely darkness. The scene that follows is the weakest part of the production. As with most of Christie's work, too much time is spent in dull exposition, with the characters telling each other the back stories of their lives so that the audience will understand what's happening when the action really gets going. There's not much that any director can do to make this setup time better except to plow on through it, which is what happens here.

Over this first scene we learn that the strange man is Michael Starkwedder (played by director Black), and he's gotten his car stuck in the muck because of all the fog. He wandered down to the house for help only to discover what appears to be a murder. The lovely woman is Laura Warwick (Elizabeth Heflin), who claims that it is she herself who shot her husband. She's got the gun to prove it.

For some reason, Starkwedder doesn't believe Laura. He claims that it's because she's such a pretty woman, but that seems odd. Still, we learn the dead man probably had it coming. Ever since a hunting accident, he's done nothing but shoot the stray cats who wandered into his backyard, yell at his wife and get drunk every night. And, oh yes, there's that little matter of the child he killed when he ran over the poor boy with his car. Richard Warwick was, in short, a nasty bugger who deserved a bullet or two. For all these reasons, we sympathize with Starkwedder when he decides he's going to help Laura. Nobody wants to see such a lovely woman go to jail.

The scenes that follow more than make up for the expository opening. The cast is full of fun oddballs. There's Henry Angell, the ironically named, dark-suited, tall stick of a man who was Warwick's man-nurse. As played by Todd Waite, Angell walks and talks with pinched perfection, but underneath all those good manners is a heart full of greed. Miss Bennett (Anne Quackenbush) is a lonely spinster who seems to be hiding something evil behind her mousy, furtive glances. And Jan Warwick (Brandon Hearnsberger), Richard's much-abused adolescent half brother, rages in wild bursts of uncontained energy, then turns sweet when caressed by the right person — he adores his stepmother Laura.

Paul Hope, John Tyson, Melissa Hart and Jeffrey Bean round out the cast of inspectors and possible assassins. It's truly hard to guess who killed Richard until the very end. It could be Angell. He certainly creeps about with a gray look in his eyes. Laura says she did it — though she certainly seems to be hiding something more. Miss Bennett is always appearing from the shadows. And Jan, the boy who was emotionally tortured by Richard, is thrilled to have inherited the victim's estate. The action involves a telltale cigarette lighter, a blackmail plot and a cabinet full of guns.

Black's direction keeps the second half moving at such a smart pace that just when you think you've got it all figured out, everything changes in a second. And at the end, the opening-night audience gasped out loud when they found out who actually dunnit.

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Lee Williams