‘The Mousetrap’ — a still marvelous whodunit comes to life in a fiendishly fabulous production
Agatha Christie’s tropes have been so widely mimicked and borrowed, that “The Mousetrap” is forever in danger of coming across as a predictable potboiler. And that makes director Sean Graney’s staging for Court Theatre all the more impressive. This is a killer production.
Almost 70 years after it premiered on stage in London, the bones of Agatha Christie’s play “The Mousetrap” sound like hackneyed cliché: A group of strangers are stranded in a shadowy manse. Suddenly, the lights go out. When they come back, there’s a body in the parlor. Enter a hardboiled detective, determined to catch the murderer.
It’s a well-worm template. It’s also one that shows Christie at the height of her powers, the master builder of the genre that she helped invent. There’s a reason that “The Mousetrap” is still playing in London. It’s a cracking fine mystery with an airtight plot that corkscrews in directions you never see coming.
When: Through Feb. 16
Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis
Tickets: $37.50 - $84
Run time: Two hours and 10 minutes, with one intermission
Still, Christie’s tropes have been so widely mimicked and borrowed, that “The Mousetrap” is forever in danger of coming across as a predictable potboiler. And that makes director Sean Graney’s staging for Court Theatre all the more impressive. This is a killer production.
Graney instills the mystery with a mood that spins as wildly as the plot. The tale veers between bone-chilling thriller and guffaw-out-loud comedy. Graney certainly leans into the dark-and-stormy-night shenanigans and retro camp the script invites. But his cast also captures the claustrophobic terror of being trapped in a place where lurking danger means every laugh comes with an undercurrent of danger.
Along the way toward finding out whodunit, Christie taps into a primal nightmare. What happens when you can’t trust what you thought was real? Perhaps your devoted husband is really a murderous sociopath who’s been gaslighting you for months. Perhaps the long-ago trauma you thought you’d long ago laid to rest has only been dormant, waiting for a chance resurface and wreak emotional havoc.
Doubt sows chaos in “The Mousetrap,” infecting the air of an isolated English inn like black mold. But it does so with incongruous humor. During the height of the terror, for example, Graney takes devastating aim at candy wrapper-rattling audience members. Crackling cellophane during a Big Important Monologue isn’t quite as bad a murder, of course. But Graney knows that for dedicated theater goers, it’s up there.
Corrosive doubts start early: Within hours of opening their new inn, Mollie and Giles Ralston (Kate Fry and Allen Gilmore), have a dead guest splayed before the fire. Skiing in from the station, Detective Sgt. Trotter (Erik Hellman) is determined to unmask the killer and prevent him/her/them from striking again.
Graney’s cast creates a mood that melds classic noir with self-aware irreverence. As Giles and Mollie, Gilmore and Fry are marvelous as a loving couple whose marriage is put to the ultimate test by the opening-day homicide. When they finally confront each other with suspicions that Trotter’s been insidiously fueling with his questions, it’s a bravura depiction of love unbalanced by obsession and suspicion. As marital blowouts goes, Gilmore and Fry go full-on “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” with their intensity. They are magnificent.
As for the Manor’s guests, they are an embarrassment of ensemble riches. David Cerda’s oddly accented Mr. Paravicini is the unholy love child of Liberace, Vincent Price and Cruella de Vil. As the nursery-rhyme obsessed manchild Christopher Wren, Alex Goodrich slathers on subtext to hilarious ends. When he excuses himself to “brush my hair,” it’s clearly code for, well, something. Maybe he’s off to vivisect a small animal. Maybe he’s a werewolf. It’s impossible to say and it is wildly amusing.
Tina Munoz Pandya’s Miss Casewell is as authoritative as a lumberjack and prone to ominous glances that feel like they’re accompanied by a crash of minor organ chords even though they are not. Which brings us to Carolyn Ann Hoerdemann’s Mrs. Boyle, an obnoxious, entitled bully whose odious personality makes you wish she’d go for a long walk in the storm outside. Like Miss Casewell, Mrs. Boyle has a signature sprawl. Watch her closely and you’ll catch a foreshadowing of the murder that precedes intermission. Lyonel Reneau’s strapping Major Metcalf initially seems weirdly underwritten but again — Christie is better than that. When his big moment comes, Reneau makes it one of the funniest scenes in the entire production. Then there’s Hellman’s Detective Trotter, whose character takes a 180-degree spin before the storm abates. Hellman morphs from Humphrey Bogart to Peter Lorre with panache and striking believability.
The final character is the environment created by the design team, especially Arnel Sancianco’s sets and Alison Siple’s costumes. (If you were lucky enough catch Graney’s “The Mystery of Irma Vep” during Court’s 2009 season, you’ll recognize his insouciant attitude toward upholstery.) The “Mousetrap” manor is part “Dark Shadows” part “The Haunting of Hill House.” The wallpaper occasionally seems to slither. Siple’s peacock-bright, impeccably cut costumes pop against the largely black-and-white set and add layers to every character on stage.
Somewhere, Agatha Christie is surely smiling. “The Mousetrap” deserves to make a killing.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.