It would be difficult to name another 20th century author with as much still currently-active output as the late Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller Christie.
Of her 66 novels and 14 short stories, 12 became plays and many more found extended life on movie and/or television screens. One of the very few which reversed that path (play to novel) is “Spider’s Web,” which opened Friday evening on the Wilson Mainstage Auditorium of South Bend Civic Theatre.
Focusing on none of Christie’s most famous sleuths — Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Tommy and Tuppence — it also was unique in that it was written specifically at the request of Margaret Lockwood, a popular British film star of the 1940s-50s, who tired of playing “heavy” roles and requested a lighter character of the prolific Mrs. Christie.
The result was Clarissa Hailsham-Brown, given a spirited portrayal here by Eva Cavadini. Clarissa is the second wife diplomat Henry (Jeff Starkey) and stepmother to his teenage daughter Pippa (Liz Carrier). On hand for the weekend in their rented country estate are three guests: Sir Rowland Delahaye (Roy Bronkema) and Hugh Birch (Gary Oesch), both older men in the midst of a contest featuring three types of port, and Jeremy Warrender (Zach Gassman), a younger man breathless from trying to break an existing record of running to the lodge gates and back three times. The contests have been set up by Clarissa to fill the time originally scheduled for a now-rained-out golf match.
And that’s only the first 10 minutes.
A change of plans means Henry must hold a secret meeting at the manor house, no small task given the company at hand. Also popping in — and out — are Mildred Peake (Mary Ann Moran), a jovial senior citizen with a cottage on the estate who serves as gardener; Elgin (Douglas Streich), the very proper butler; and Oliver Costello (a properly smarmy Reg Wagle), current boyfriend of Henry’s ex-wife, whose less-than-honorable intentions are quickly — and permanently — cut short.
Enter a bumbling policeman, Inspector Lord (Travis Mayer), and his sidekick, Constable Jones (Patrick Trimboli whose Chaplin-esque skip is more bewildering than funny), add a hidden recess used in past centuries as a hiding place for priests and an alternate egress from the manor and, as a non-Christie character would declare, “The game’s afoot.”
As the long finger of the law points from one suspect to another, hostess Clarissa, whose favorite game is “supposing,” weaves convoluted alibis for each one. No surprise that these fail to put anyone in the clear and, indeed, prove much more confusing both to characters and audience.
Because it was written specifically for one actress may be the reason that this is the weakest in Dame Agatha’s list of mysteries. There is little suspense and the final exposure of the killer and motivation seems merely a solution for the sake of a solution rather than a surprising revelation.
No doubt aim at breaking up the rambling blocks of dialogue which are Christie’s trademark, director Jewel Abram-Copenhaver has underscored the most obvious with passages of familiar classical music as if to say “Don’t take this too seriously.”
It is a wise direction and one which the company — as well as the “cast” of the pre-show scenario (check period set pieces and “actors” throughout the lobbies) — takes under advisement. All deliver very credible performances, especially Cavadini and Bronkema, with Streich proving again that he can “butle” with the very best and Moran offering a giddy take on the obligatory nattering senior.
The all-encompassing set design by David Chudzynski is well-executed and affords the actors almost too much playing room. Somehow, mysteries seem to play better when the surroundings are a bit more claustrophobic.
“SPIDER’S WEB” plays tonight through Sunday and Oct. 30 through Nov. 3 in the Wilson Mainstage Auditorium in the theater at 401 N. Main Street. For performance times and reservations, call 234-1112 or visit www.sbct.org.