Cheese in the 'Mousetrap'

An old play gets a fresh revue, thanks to the folks at Live Theatre Workshop.

Agatha Christie's whodonit The Mousetrap opened in London in 1952; still running at St. Martin's Theatre after more than five decades, it is loaded with very stale cheese.

Christie built her Mousetrap out of every murder-mystery cliché in the book (a book written largely by Christie herself): Eight eccentric characters are trapped by a blizzard in an English country house. At least one of them will soon be murdered. At least one of them, of course, is a murderer. A police detective is on hand for a re-enactment of the crime. Every character has something to hide, and every meal at this country inn is a plate of red herrings. The murderer is revealed only after a shocking plot twist.

Perhaps to compensate for all this predictability, Christie tried to make the dénouement a real surprise (for starters, there's no butler). But after 52 years of The Mousetrap serving as a London tourist attraction to rival Buckingham Palace and making the rounds of every little theater company in the English-speaking world, can there be anyone who does not know the murderer's identity?

Well, yes, actually, so let's not spoil things for those five innocent souls.

At any rate, The Mousetrap is very much a period piece, a product of a postwar England, where ration cards still governed daily life, effeminate men and mannish women inspired a snickering mistrust, and the standard mystery formula had not yet soured. Directors and actors approaching the play today must think very carefully about the tone of their production. Play it straight, like Ibsen in paperback? Camp it up and make every line and gesture drip with postmodern irony? Or something in between?

Live Theatre Workshop's current production takes a middle course, often swerving sharply in the direction of humor without quite veering into self-parody. And the technique works.

When I first saw The Mousetrap in London some 20 years ago, it was a humorless production playing to an unresponsive audience of fatigued tourists. I thought it was a colossal waste of money, and my only consolation was that the dollar was strong against the pound that day. But by playing it as a gently comic murder mystery, Live Theatre Workshop gives The Mousetrap a snap it lost in England long ago.

The setting is Monkswell Manor, a house outside London that newlyweds Mollie and Giles Ralston (the steady, likeable Lisa Bodden and Brian Wees) have just that day opened as a guest house. One by one, the guests fight their way through the snow to the front door:

· A foppish young architect (Christopher Johnson) calling himself Christopher Wren, but looking and behaving more like Oscar Wilde;

· A haughty, intensely critical matron named Mrs. Boyle (Peg Peterson);

· A stiff-upper-lip old fellow called Major Metcalf (Bruce Bieszki, who doubles as director);

· A mysterious, sullen young Englishwoman named Miss Casewell (Dana Armstrong) who lives abroad and dresses in men's suits;

· An even more mysterious old authentic foreigner named Paravicini (Ed Fuller), who seeks shelter after driving his car into a snowdrift; and

· One Sgt. Trotter (Cliff Madison), arriving on skis to declare that the police department believes a murderer lurks among the guests, and is about to strike again.

Among the actors playing guests, Johnson takes his Christopher Wren just barely over the top, and he obviously has great fun doing it. It's a testament to Peg Peterson's skill that the audience hopes against hope that the overbearing Mrs. Boyle has a prominent spot on the victim list. And Armstrong plays Miss Casewell with a reasonably light touch, refusing to indulge Christie in her butch-dyke caricature.

Bieszki is solid, as usual, as Metcalf, although, also as usual, he doesn't even attempt an English accent. Fuller's accent is the downfall of his performance; he has the necessary charm for Paravicini, but no Old World identity. As Sgt. Trotter, Madison deploys his characteristic boyish mischievousness to good effect, despite the fact that his character is not supposed to be the least bit comic. Madison makes the approach work--as did Peter Lorre in all of his film roles, but Madison resists indulging in Lorre's creepiness.

So don't waste money going to London to see The Mousetrap. Live Theatre Workshop has built a better one.

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