Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2005

The Theater Barn is billing this evening of mysteries as containing only two plays, which, technically it does, but a total of four separate pieces are presented in the course of a brief ninety minutes (I’ve sat through many first acts that run longer than that.) The evening begins with two of Agatha Christie’s short stories adapted for the stage by Theater Barn Artistic Director Michael Marotta and Tony Capone, who is the director of the evening’s entertainment. They are titled “The Actress” and “In a Glass Darkly” although I have no idea whether those are also the titles of the Christie stories from which they are taken. The first portion of the evening ends with David Ives’ Christie parody “The Mystery at Twicknam Vicarage”. After intermission Christie’s one-act play “The Rats” is performed. A cast of five actors – three men and two women – assume various roles in the different pieces, all requiring the use of bad British accents.

I understand that “The Rats” is rarely produced, and, of course, the two adapted short stories are given their world premieres here. If you are a rabid Christie fan this conglomeration will undoubtedly be appealing. The annual Christie mystery at the Barn is invariably sold out, and there was a full house on opening night. I am on record as not being much of a mystery buff, so there are probably delights here that completely escape me, but I was not overly impressed with the proceedings. There were some good performances and the second short story adaptation really caught my attention, but basically nothing went on long enough to be very interesting, let alone suspenseful.

The evening opens with what is undoubtedly the weakest and least interesting of the four offerings: “The Actress”. Possibly it is a gripping short story, but Marotta and Capone’s adaptation is obvious and poorly played. Any piece that requires a narrator is suspect. One that requires three is an automatic re-write. Wendi Black plays the great dramatic actress Olga Stormer who is the object of a blackmail plot. Black is attractive in that toothy-horsey-Princess-Anne-British sort of way, which works well for the other roles she is given during the course of the evening but is disastrous here. Picture Princess Anne doing Eugene O’Neill. The always solid John Trainor is miscast. Only Michael Cyril Creighton as Olga’s blackmailer is of any interest. But why, if Creighton’s character is an old friend of Olga’s from Chicago, does he have a British accent?

The second adaptation “In a Glass Darkly” is written and performed very well by Trainor and Creighton as the older and younger embodiments of the same man. The structure is simple. In the story, a vision this man has early in life is instrumental in shaping his, and many other people’s futures in unexpected ways. If the whole evening could be this interesting and suspenseful the Barn would really have something.

But then the first half of the evening concludes with Ives parody. Okay, so I am on record as not being a fan of Ives either. Yes, he makes me laugh but all the while I keep thinking, “This is just clever schlock.” “The Mystery at Twicknam Vicarage” would have made a dandy skit on the Carol Burnett Show, with Harvey Korman as the inspector, Tim Conway as the rector, and Lyle Waggoner as the corpse…but I digress. (Point of Order: Why is the Rector living in the Vicarage? Vicars live in Vicarages and Rectors live in Rectories.)

As the lights come up and Black emits a piercing scream (perchance she won the role for her scream alone?) the corpse of Jeremy Thumpinton-Fffeines (Eric Greenlund) is discovered. Trainor plays Inspector Dexter in charge of interrogating the three suspects: Reverend Roger Penworthy-Pilks (Creighton), his toothy-horsey wife Sarah (Black), and the corpse’s widow (or is she?) Mona (Brittany Brown). There are several very funny gags, many of them centering around Creighton’s Peter Sellers-style accent which is so British as to be incomprehensible.

“The Mystery at Twicknam Vicarage” is certainly funny, and Capone has his cast take it at a mad-cap pace, but considering the evening as a whole, I found it distracting, particular with its placement smack in the middle before intermission. The evening would be better structured if “The Actress” was jettisoned altogether and the show opened with “In a Glass Darkly” as a teaser before “The Rats”. Then after intermission we could all have reassembled for a good laugh before heading home.

“The Rats” is certainly vintage Christie. Here Black plays a toothy-horsey busybody named Jennifer Brice who has been asked by neighbors to feed their budgerigar while they’re abroad. She enters the fifth-floor flat to discover a pretty young thing Sandra Grey (Brown) already there, claiming she has been invited to a party and is expecting her husband to meet her. Then handsome David Forrester (Greenlund) appears, claiming that he too was invited to the party. After the bird is fed and Jennifer leaves, an obviously gay man named Alec (Creighton) enters. He says he was invited to the party, but his manner is most peculiar. After dropping an antique knife over the balcony, Alec vanishes, and Sandra and David discover that he has locked them in.

As I said, reordering the evening would make “The Rats” a much stronger and more suspenseful offering. Everyone gives their best performances here (although Greenlund’s bad British accent morphs into a bad Scottish accent half-way through), and it would have made a spooky intermission curtain.

All of the performers here are newcomers to the Theater Barn, except for the venerable Trainor, who here makes his 33rd appearance on that stage. Based on first impressions, the only one that I would want to see more of is Creighton, who has an interesting resume and shows a nice versatility. Brown might have some promise as well, I liked her ingénue role in “The Rats”. Black seemed a rather one-note comedienne and Greenlund struck me as, well, green. Perhaps I will get to see these three performers in other roles over the summer that will introduce me to more of their talents. I encourage them to prove me wrong!

Capone has teamed up with Abe Phelps to design a set that works well enough for the variety of uses to which it is put. It is neither beautiful nor interesting, but it is functional. Allen Phelps has had fun with some bits of very dramatic and mysterious lighting.

Costume designer Celestine has come up with some very attractive outfits for the ladies, especially for Black, who has a super-slender model’s figure. And I loved Brown’s satiny sixties get-up in “The Rats”. But why, oh why, have she and Capone allowed Black to wear a white bra/slip underneath that beautiful navy lace bodice in “The Mystery at Twicknam Vicarage”? People say I fuss too much about underwear but it is so easy to wear the right undies and so distracting when actors don’t…

The Rats and The Mystery at Twicknam Vicarage run through July 24 at The Theater Barn, located on Rt. 20 just west of the town of New Lebanon, NY. The show runs 90 minutes with one intermission. There are one or two curse words, but basically this is a family-friendly evening. Despite the macabre themes, there is no on-stage violence. Call the box office at 518-794-8989 for tickets and information.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005

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