Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, October 2005

I spent a great deal of time the past week grumbling about murder mystery plays. I am not much of a mystery fan, and I will never understand the American value system that categorizes murder as “wholesome entertainment”, but I find mysteries in their theatrical form particularly unsatisfying because there isn’t the time for character development. I loved Murder, She Wrote because week after week I got to know and care about Jessica Fletcher and her neighbors in Cabot Cove. I lapped up the Brother Cadfael mysteries because of the wonderfully evocative portrait Edith Pargeter (aka Ellis Peters) painted of 12th century Shrewsbury Abbey and its inhabitants. Even when presented with familiar detective characters on stage, such as Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple, they are always played by unfamiliar actors and never precisely fit the mental image one has formed while reading the books.

I am fully aware that murder mysteries on the page, the stage, and on film are wildly popular. Every theatre owner/producer I speak to tells me they don’t particularly care for the genre, but that the productions invariably sell out. So one of the tricks for a critic, whether they love or hate mysteries in general, is trying to see each production with fresh eyes. I walked in to the New York State Theatre Institute’s production of Agatha Christie’s The Unexpected Guest knowing full well who dunnit, and remembering many of the plot twists that would deliver the denouement as well.

And then NYSTI surprised me. I am only just getting to know this venerable company – celebrating its 30th anniversary this season – and I forgot that they are not just a producing company but a teaching company. Much more thought needs to go into their productions because they are not just performed but taught. And the result of a more thoughtful and polished production was a more thorough and enjoyable experience. The veil was lifted and for the first time in my life I understood why people like murder mystery plays.

I realized that mysteries I had seen previously were rushed. Under Patricia Di Benedetto Snyder’s direction each of Christie’s characters is given a full opportunity to reveal him or herself, their relationship to the deceased, and their (possible) motives for murder. Each cast member makes the most of his or her solo turns, making it possible for the audience to care about them enough to get involved. In her director’s notes Di Benedetto Snyder confesses to being an avid Christie reader and fan, and her interest in and love of Christie’s craft is evident throughout the production.

Since I knew who dunnit, and I suspect I was not alone since The Unexpected Guest debuted in 1958 and has been performed widely ever since, I was able to focus on Di Benedetto Snyder’s direction and the individual performances in a way I couldn’t have if I was looking for clues. She made full use of Richard Finkelstein’s impressive gothic set, placing actors strategically for maximum visibility and subtle effect. Characters lurked and emerged from shadows, or stood their ground menacingly in the background when it seemed that their goose had finally been cooked.

I will not, of course, reveal who dunnit, but I will give a brief set-up for those unfamiliar with the play. The house lights dim and a shot rings out. The lights come up on the body of Richard Warrick (Ron Komora) slumped in his wheelchair in front of a set of French doors, wide open to a dark and foggy night in south Wales in the late 1920’s. A voice is heard outside and a stranger, Michael Starkwedder (David Bunce), whose car has crashed nearby in the fog, enters through the open doors to discover the body. Richard’s widow, Laura (Mary Jane Hansen) emerges to confess to the crime, and she and her unexpected guest concoct an elaborate scheme placing the blame on a man named McGregor, whose child Richard had run over and killed two years earlier.

Richard, it seems, was almost universally loathed – even his elderly mother (Lorriane Serabian) takes a turn confessing to the murder of her only child – and many people had good reason to want him dead. He was constantly threatening to institutionalize his mentally challenged half-brother, Jan (Sean Patrick Fagan). His nasty temper and physical handicaps had driven Laura into the arms of a handsome young politician, Julian Farrar (Rob Dalton), and they both longed for a life together unencumbered by the scandal of divorce. His servants, the devoted Miss Bennett (Carole Edie Smith) and the slimy Henry Angell (John Romeo), each stood to benefit from his demise in some way.

The no-nonsence Inspector Thomas (Joel Aroeste), his poetic side-kick Sergeant Cadwallader (John McGuire), and a helpful constable (NYSTI intern Clint Johnson) arrive to investigate the crime, and Christie cleverly shifts the focus of guilt from one character to the next. Believe me, the ending to this one is a complete surprise!

This is a uniformly excellent cast. Hansen is lovely and vulnerable as the distraught and confused Laura. Bunce convincingly underplays the tricky role of Michael Starkwedder. Serabian is every inch the grande dame as the elder Mrs. Warrick. Dalton makes a suitably wishy-washy politico. Aroeste is a no-nonsense police inspector. Smith is a bustle of efficiency as the devoted “Benny”. And Romeo is all unctuous evil as Angell (pronounced Ann-jell).

But the plum role in this play is that of the simple-minded young Jan Warrick. In every production I have seen this part has been cast well, played differently, and received the biggest hand at the curtain calls. Here Fagan does an excellent job of representing Jan’s handicaps without ridiculing them. Jan is chronologically an adult, but mentally he is about nine years old. Many mentally challenged individuals don’t ever really grow to resemble adults physically, and Fagan uses his slight build along with subtly accurate movement traits to embody Jan fully. Needless to say, he is great and makes the most of the acting opportunity presented to him.

The other small but sweet role is that of Cadwallader, a gentle, thoughtful soul who somehow enlisted in the constabulary. McGuire did a nice job of playing but not overplaying this little gem of a part.

Finkelstein has created a stately home study that is properly “dinosaurian” in architecture – huge sweeping arches of dark stained wood, with massive (and apparently real) trophy heads hanging on the walls, and lots of dark nooks and crannies from which to lurk and emerge. I, and many other audience members, made the pilgrimage to the edge of the stage at intermission to get a closer look at the set, which is always a nice tribute to the designer.

At NYSTI they have a resident composer and so their productions are often scored like a film, with music throughout commenting on and enhancing the action. Will Severin has composed an original score, which is hard for me to comment on because it felt so reminiscent of his score for Sherlock’s Legacy another murder mystery and the only other show I have attended and reviewed at NYSTI. I would have to hear Severin’s work in a non-mystery context in order to comment further.

The costumes by Robert Anton are superb. His 1920’s outfits for the character of Laura are absolutely breathtaking, and I overheard several ladies at intermission expressing their admiration.

There was something off in the sound design, possibly the placement of the microphones, because whenever actors walked or spoke from upstage left I found myself looking over left shoulder to see if someone was entering through the house. An odd problem and possibly just a fluke of the day, not a permanent issue.

The only other technical glitch in this otherwise flawless performance was a fog malfunction at the play’s opening. While fog filled the left-hand windows, and even poured into the room, which real fog never does, the sky outside the right-hand windows remained cloudless. Stage fog is hard to control, and again I suspect a one-time problem with backstage fans more than I suspect any blunder on the part of the design team or tech crew.

I you are a Christie fan, or if you, like me, have never understood what all the fuss was about, I encourage you to go and see the NYSTI production of The Unexpected Guest. It is an auspicious start to the 30th anniversary season and a nice not-too-spooky Halloween-time diversion for the whole family.

The New York State Theatre Institute production of The Unexpected Guest runs through November 5 at the Schacht Fine Arts Center on the campus of Russell Sage College, 37 Front Street in Troy, New York. The show runs two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission, and is suitable for mystery fans ages 10 and up. Call the box office at 518-274-3200 for tickets and information.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005

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