The setup: Agatha Christie may not have been the first mystery writer to maroon a bunch of strangers in a house together, tell them one of them is a murderer and some of the rest of them are potential victims, and then just let the secrets and paranoia do all the work. But she was definitely a master of those time-honored tricks of the genre.
The Mousetrap, a play Christie wrote based on her own radio script and short story, has been running in London's West End, currently at St. Martin's Theatre, since 1952 -- 25,000 performances and counting. It's currently also playing at Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre, and they've already extended the run once, so I suppose 60-plus years is possible, but I wouldn't hold my breath. (The show's not bad at all, but I don't hold my breath in general.)
The execution: This is a genuinely old and old-fashioned (not to mention U.K. English) play, and it probably couldn't even work if the company didn't embrace that. The small, snowbound guest house (kind of like a B&B, but with all meals included) that is the setting is already an old building during the action. So all of the carrying around of wood and the mysterious "coke," the adjusting of heat to each radiator, making sure pipes don't freeze, etc., is important to setting up that "where were you at the time" convention that crime stories must have.
Too often at community theaters, no one ever bothers to tell the actors they need to look up all those strange words that are now lost to history or cultural differences and find out what they mean so they know what they're doing and discussing on stage. (How to keep an old house warm in the early 1940s is only one example.) Director Mark-Alan C. Clemente (Art) and his team have made sure that just about everything makes sense to the cast, which means it makes sense to the audience, which is a huge plus.
(I'm not sure that Virginia Olivieri, as Mollie, really was carrying a carpet sweeper through the front parlor when she was accused of having done so. But maybe she did it a few minutes before the scene started. And in Desert Stages' Actors Cafe, you can't see everything from every seat.)
The cast is quite engaged. Sometimes, one or two of them get a bit too quiet for even this small venue. Often, their assorted, mostly British dialects wander about. But confidence, a sometimes underrated talent, pulls them through, and Christie was clever enough to make most of the characters big weirdos. The actors who play them have left no stops unpulled, making this a sort of straight-faced The Californians of over-the-top, vaguely creepy limeys (and one European).
The energy and (generally) subtle humor are on purpose. This would all be pretty stodgy and stereotypical without a bit of tongue in cheek.
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But you still don't want more people to get killed -- largely because they're entertaining to watch. That's one of the main reasons this Mousetrap works. Tamara Treat's detailed, frumpy, WWII-era costumes are another.
The verdict: Interesting word, verdict. The identity of the murderer in this show is so fiercely protected by Christie's grandson, who owns the rights, that the story and script have never been published in the U.K. and the only film version so far was made in India. So while I cannot tell you whodunit, I can say who enjoyed it -- my friend and I, who have seen an awful lot of plays since we were 17-year-old stagehands together.
The predominant impression given by this production is good, clean fun, shared by an ensemble that's genuinely having a great time being at the theater with you. May the cast continue to enjoy its next month of scurrying around Monkswell Manor, so that you can, too. The Mousetrap continues through Sunday, August 18 (an extension of the originally announced run), at Scottsdale Desert Stages, 4720 North Scottsdale Road. Tickets are $22 and $25; purchase them here or call 480-483-1664.