Full of Mystery

Live Theatre Workshop has a funny way of filling in Agatha Christie's 'The Hollow.'

The English are a tidy lot, but their country houses are littered--with corpses. For the first three quarters of the 20th century, Agatha Christie killed off her country's provincial leisure class one insufferable twit at a time, in detective stories that ended with a little twist helping you overlook that every other element was utterly conventional.

Christie's The Hollow now skulks about the stage of Live Theatre Workshop. The script lurks heavily under the burden of mystery clichés; Dame Agatha even tosses in two methods of murder. Director James Mitchell Gooden has tried to lighten the load by turning his production into a self-deprecating little dance of death. Gooden's silliness provides an odd counterbalance to Christie's straightforward genre writing. Some mystery connoisseurs will be annoyed by the production's touches of irreverence, while fans of things goofball will protest that Gooden hasn't gone far enough; the tone sometimes shifts uneasily.

The Hollow is the name of the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell (John McRostie and Cynthia Jeffery), who have invited their relations and a couple of friends over for a weekend of tedium and perhaps desultory adultery.

Among the assembled are Edward (Jeremy Thompson), the cousin who inherited the family estate for which everyone else longs, and Henrietta (Kristi Loera), the cousin for whom Edward longs. Young Midge (Valerie Feingold) would prefer Edward to have his eye on her, which is just as well because Henrietta is engaged in a loveless dalliance with Dr. John Cristow (Gooden), who has the poor taste to arrive for the weekend in the company of his wife, Gerda (Linda Andresano). Just down the road is a famous movie star, Veronica Craye (Missie Hinske), who has ideas of her own about Dr. Cristow.

All are overseen by Gudgeon, the butler (Tom Potter), and a young maid named Doris (Nika Kaiser). When death manages to liven things up (without spoiling the carpet, of course; this is England), a murder investigation is launched by a Scotland Yard inspector (Bruce Bieszki) and his assistant (Koryie Harvey).

You can guess from his first scene that Dr. Cristow will have an appointment with the coroner by the end of the first act. He's the arrogant, self-serving, duplicitous one--writers of Christie's ilk rarely kill off a sympathetic character, although everything else is pretty much up for grabs. Still, one can't help feeling that Dame Agatha was writing by rote; with the straightest face, she indulges in so many genre conventions that the inspector seems on the verge of encountering Col. Mustard with a candlestick in the library. The Hollow men are straw men, suspects knocked down one by one--often by the reek of red herring--until the murderer makes a revealing misstep.

Perhaps afraid that few people can take such stuff seriously anymore, Gooden has made the play a parody of itself, though only intermittently. The first clue is the butler with a voice like air escaping from a balloon; his last place of employ seems to have been the Gaslight Theatre. Then there's Gooden's melodramatic death scene, in which, shrieking, he circles the spot of his collapse like a dog preparing to lie down. And whenever someone mentions Ainswick, the old family home, everyone gazes, sighing, at a picture of the estate in a running gag worthy of Mel Brooks; you halfway expect Gene Wilder to come blurt out the name "Frau Blücher," while horses panic offstage.

To a degree, Christie asks for it, not only by diligently playing by the rules but by introducing a touch of dottiness herself. Lucy, for example, seems one fork short of a table service. The logic behind her stream-of-consciousness chatter is a greater mystery than the identity of the killer, and she leaves for the inquest with the enthusiasm of a matron going to a garden party. Yet Jeffery plays Lucy with a streak of self-awareness, suggesting that even this daft woman is a likely suspect.

Andresano finds a nice balance in her portrayal of Gerda: clumsy, tentative, exhibiting the beseeching agreeability of an often-kicked dog, she is both funny and sympathetic. The others tend to line up on one side of dignity or the other; Hinske's movie star is all self-indulgent flamboyance, while most of the remaining Ankgatells play things straight.

In the end, your acceptance of this approach to The Hollow depends on your willingness to have fun without worrying about whether the most-translated author in the English language deserves a presentation of greater dignity. Agatha Christie's The Hollow is, after all, just an English murder mystery. This dame ain't Raymond Chandler.