Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2004

Every season the Theater Barn trots out a murder mystery. This year it is Agatha Christie’s The Unexpected Guest, considered by fans to be one of her finest works for the stage. Sure enough, before the lights come up a murder is committed, and within the next few minutes a confession is made. This person is not the murderer, of course, and the remainder of the show presents all the inhabitants of this isolated house in Wales and their motives for murdering wheelchair-bound Richard Warwick (David S. Wonder), who, by all their accounts, deserved to have been shot years earlier.

So, was it Laura (Amelia Gamsky) the “grieving widow” who spends the rest of the show clad in brilliant red? Her lover Julian Farrar (Drew Davidson), a candidate for Parliament in an upcoming election? The aged mother (Carol Charniga) who saw what a monster her son had become? The slimy male nurse Henry Angell (Dan Haughey) who’s fond of blackmail? The feeble-minded younger half-brother Jan (Ryan Wesley Gilreath) who Richard had threatened to institutionalize? Or the doting Miss Bennett (Frances Eldred), general factotum to the household? And what about Michael Starkwedder (Frank Franconeri), who blundered on to the murder scene while seeking assistance for his car, which ended up in a ditch outside the Warwick home on that foggy, foggy night? It is up to Inspector Thomas (John Trainor), his bumbling side-kick Sergeant Cadwallader (Patrick Waggoner), and you to figure it out. Christie inserts every possible red herring, and the audience I attended with greeted each new clue with a cheerful murmur as they kept track of who was where when, and why.

This is not a red-hot production, but neither is it a bad one. There were several flubbed lines when I saw the show, but it was opening night and I am sure the actors have settled into their roles by now. But aside from an energetic scenery-chewing performance by Gilreath as the addled Jan, everyone else is rather wooden. They seem to have confused British reserve with general ennui. For instance Charniga, as the bereaved mother, barely manages a gasp when woken from a sound sleep to find her son shot through the head in the study. Surely a mother, even an upper-class English one born in the 19th century, would show a little more emotion when greeted by the grisly sight of her only child with his brains blown out. And thus the evening progresses.

Gilreath, on the other hand, is a lot of fun. It is a stock character, to be sure, but he plays the role consistently and with tremendous physical energy, folding his lanky body into incredibly small spaces and then expanding exponentially to slither over and under and all around the set. It would be easy to make Jan silly, but he never is. You feel genuine pity when he too is shot to death near the end of the play.

The award for most annoying actor on the stage easily goes to Waggoner. His is a very brief part, but he manages to make the worst of it with a broad bad brogue and a Stan Laurel head-scratching routine. Second most annoying is Haughey, who is what Jerry Seinfeld would call a “low-talker,” not a good trait to have if you aspire to a career in live theatre. My advice to Haughey would be to learn to project his voice, so that even low and menacing tones, which I think is what he is aiming for, can be heard clearly.

There were a wide array of bad British accents to be heard on the stage. Even with the most talented and highly trained actors, it is very difficult to get any bunch of Yanks to maintain a consistently good set of accents for an entire evening. Since there was nothing specifically British about the play, it would have been easy enough to transport it to this side of the pond and spare everyone the trouble.

All that being said Phil C. Rice has done a nice job directing, his job made easier by Abe Phelps’ attractive realistic set. The stage pictures are nice and the traffic patterns are efficient and naturalistic, even when Gilreath is clambering all about.

Jane Roy-Bachman has designed some very attractive day dresses for the ladies – appropriate to the occasion, their social station, and the era. The women of the British countryside are notably dowdy, and it was fun to see that in the fictional Warwick household at least a certain level of style is maintained. The gentlemen are dressed in typically tweedy style.

I am often faulted for being thrilled or annoyed by the smallest details of a production, but little things can make a big difference. This time round I would like to draw your attention to the stage floor. Abe Phelps is the king of trompe l’oeil painted floors and it is not uncommon to see audience members bending down to touch them as they exit the theatre to see if they are real. Floors don’t make or break a show, but artistry at any level should be acknowledged and enjoyed. I encourage you to enjoy the faux flagstone in this production.

If you are a murder mystery fan, you will no doubt be entertained by this show. It won’t be the best one you ever saw, but it won’t be the worst either. This would be a good way to introduce an older school-age child to the fun of a well-written mystery, as the show is free of any hint of sex or violence (hard to believe when there are two corpses by the end of the evening, but trust me, there is less violence here than in an average 10-minute Hanna-Barbera cartoon). Just be warned that there are a couple of LOUD gunshots, so stay at home if that distresses you.

The Unexpected Guest runs through July 25 at The Theater Barn, located on Rt. 20 just west of the town of New Lebanon, NY. The show runs two hours and ten minutes with one intermission and is suitable for children 8 and up. Call the box office at 518-794-8989 for tickets and information.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2004

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