Intriguing Entertainment

Inspector, I confess! I love stage mysteries and thrillers.
From the time, as a youngster, I saw the film classic Witness for the Prosecution--based on Agatha Christie's play--I've been guilty of harboring a secret thrill for the mechanical intricacies of a spine-tingling whodunit.

Phoenix Theatre has mounted one of the paradigms of this hoary genre, Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap, in a go-for-broke, earnest production that delivers laughs and intrigue. This script has the distinction of being the longest-running play in the history of theatre, having run on London's West End for the past 44 years since its debut in 1952.

The stage mystery is presently in disfavor among American theatre critics. Recently, on Broadway, the opening-night press savaged the highly anticipated Getting Away With Murder by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth, forcing a truncated run that marks Sondheim's most abrupt dismissal.

It may be argued that the form reached a pinnacle of achievement in 1970 with Anthony Shaffer's cunning Sleuth, wherein no conclusion was safe from another mind-boggling twist until the final curtain. But I suspect the culprit in the current critical mayhem against stage mystery is the contemporary critic himself, who seems so determined to demonstrate an intellectual superiority to artists that he will not admit he can be outfoxed by cleverness.

The Mousetrap is a textbook of mystery cliches.
As the curtain rises, an uneven snow falls above the skeletal depiction of a pastoral lodge in the isolated English countryside (cozily designed by Geof Eroe). This expansive manor has recently been bought by a young couple who has refurbished it as a weekend guest house.

As the radio reports the murder of a young woman in London and describes the clothes the apparent perpetrator was wearing, the young wife obliviously picks up each item of clothing enumerated--an overcoat, a muffler and a soft felt hat. It is clothing that her returning husband has just discarded. Even if you are not a mystery buff, you know immediately that you are being teased with a red herring. We can safely cross the husband off the list of suspects. Or can we?

We soon discover the murdered woman was one of three orphaned children who had been placed in foster care many years before, and that one of her now-grown siblings has escaped incarceration from a mental institution.

The guests begin to arrive for the inaugural weekend of this country getaway, and they prove a smorgasbord of idiosyncratic types. First, there is the eccentric Christopher Wren, a bushy-haired architect conveniently named after the 16th-century genius. Next comes Mrs. Boyle, a familiar she-dragon of conservatism, disapproving of all she surveys. Then comes the handsome and enigmatic Dietrich double, Miss Casewell. Major Metcalf is every bit the blustery beefeater his name suggests, and Mr. Paravicini is an unexpected foreign guest who is snowbound and needs respite from the storm.

Finally, Detective Sergeant Trotter arrives across the barren terrain on skis, dispatched by Scotland Yard to prevent more murders at the hand of an escaped lunatic.

I will reveal no more, except to say that there is a subsequent murder, and that the telephone lines are predictably cut and that it is obvious there is a murderer among us. The next victim turns out to be the judge who had placed the three children in foster care and we soon realize that, among the remaining suspects, two must be unidentified siblings.

Each person has had ample opportunity to accomplish the dire deed; the manor provides many quaint means of egress to the bedrooms upstairs, the parlor with the piano, the wine cellar and the kitchen. Trapped incommunicado, our suspects gather for the inevitable inquisition from the inspector.

By now, you may be guessing Colonel Mustard in the pantry with the candlestick, and that may be a "Clue" as to why the stage mystery is in decline. We have grown up with such untrusting minds that the well-ordered universe required by the world of the whodunit is as remote as the Jurassic era. The form dictates a civilized formula of human behavior--a formula the modern audience does not assume as a given--that eschews dimension and complexity of character. We are left with the broad outlines of character types, none of whom deserves our empathetic engagement until he or she is absolved of criminal culpability.

Phoenix Theatre has assembled a stellar cast of Valley favorites to entice our suspicion. Gerald Burgess is perfect as the quintessential British aristocrat, Major Metcalf. Mike Lawlor is suitably outlandish as Paravicini, an outsider extravagant enough to alarm any incipient xenophobe.

Jason Kuykendall and Shana Bousard are so ingenuous as the artless hosts that they invite immediate distrust, while Sally Jo Bannow and Sylvia Amundsen play one dimension so persuasively that one might imagine either as victim or executioner.

Rounding out the cast is the exemplary Bob Sorenson as the Detective: methodical, exacting and tenaciously clever. His performance is so understated you may suspect even he might harbor a secret.

But the performance of the evening is the brilliant turn by the erratic Michael Tassoni as the wild-eyed Christopher Wren, camping with devastating authority in a role that permits and demands no less.

Lighting designer Paul Black has provided electrifying blackouts, eerie shadows and intriguing illumination. The costumes by Rebecca Y. Powell and the sound design by Gene Ganssle contribute to the sly staging by Gary Griffin and the dialects owe an aura of authenticity to the coaching of Avis Ashton.

I can't promise any gasps of terror or unexpectedly astounding revelations, but if you enjoy crossword puzzles, this entertaining exercise in intellectual irrelevance is for you.

The Mousetrap continues
through Sunday, April 14, at Phoenix Theatre,
Central and McDowell.

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