Reviewed by Judy Richter
There's a theatrical tradition that began in 1952 when "The Mousetrap" by Agatha Christie made its premiere as a stage play. (It's still onstage in London today, making it the longest-running play in the world.) Center REPertory Company continues that tradition when one of the actors steps forth during the curtain call and asks the audience not to reveal the ending.
Knowing the ending could spoil the fun for first-timers because the late author has so cleverly constructed this whodunit that almost any character could be the villain. Center REP adds to the fun during intermission. That's when the ushers hand out ballots asking the audience to vote for the person most likely to be the baddie. The results are posted in the lobby at the end of the show. At the reviewed performance, the overwhelming "winner" was not the guilty party.
The action takes place during the late '40s at Monkswell Manor, an English guest house operated by a young couple, Giles and Mollie Ralston (Mark Anderson Phillips and Carrie Paff). This, their first day of business, is cold and snowy, so they're a bit worried as their guests begin to arrive. They worry even more when they meet those guests, starting with the eccentric, foppish young Christopher Wren (Mark Farrell), who says he's an architect. The others, who arrive shortly thereafter, are Mrs. Boyle (Kerri Shawn), an older woman who complains about everything; Miss Casewell (Cassie Beck), a mannish young woman seems to have a secret; the seemingly amiable Major Metcalf (James Carpenter), a retired army officer; and Mr. Paravicini (Michael Butler),an older man with an accent who arrives unexpectedly after saying his Rolls Royce overturned in the snow. They're soon joined by Detective Sergeant Trotter (Craig Marker), who is investigating a murder that took place in London the day before. Trotter tells the hosts and by now snowbound guests that the police believe that someone at Monkswell Manor might be in danger and that the murderer might be one of them. Mrs. Boyle's murder eliminates her as a suspect, but everyone else says and does suspicious things, ratcheting up the tension, leading to some emotional outbursts and leading the audience on a trail with numerous wrong turns and suppositions.
Director Timothy Near, who is married to Butler, Center REP's artistic director, keeps the action flowing smoothly. She's aided by Kelly Tighe's handsome but somewhat creepy set, Kurt Landisman's lighting, Elizabeth Poindexter's costumes and Chris Houston's sound. However, some of the performances nearly go over the top with overacting. Still, the acting is solid, given that some of the characters are almost caricatures at first. As the play continues, though, the actors and script give the characters more depth while keeping the audience guessing until almost the very end.