The past year has seen a number of visits from the fascinating and endangered creature known as the theatrical mystery-thriller. St. Peters' Act II Theatre recently performed Ira Levin's cruel melodrama Veronica's Room, the Babylon Players tackled Tom Stoppard's meta-thriller The Real Inspector Hound, Florissant's Hawthorne Players revived J.B. Priestly's morality play An Inspector Calls and the St. Charles Theatre Company ably performed Frederick Knott's classy Dial M for Murder, as well as Don Nigro's tribute to the genre, Ravenscroft.
It is with high expectations that we now welcome the grandmaster of the genre, Agatha Christie, as the Theatre Guild of Webster Groves presents The Hollow.
The Hollow, a whodunit written by Christie and based on her 1946 novel of the same name, may not be as familiar to theatergoers as Ten Little Indians or The Mousetrap. (The latter is approaching its 50th year of continual performance by the same London theater company, a record for any play of any kind.) That is not for any want of cleverness, for Hollow, like the best of Christie's works, is thoroughly engrossing and tautly paced and keeps the audience guessing who the murderer is until the surprising end.
"There are different points where you think, 'Oh my God no, this person did it,'" says director Hank Crider, "and that's what she [Christie] is so good at -- throwing suspicion onto other people."
The action takes place at an English country house where Lord and Lady Angkatell have invited a gang of relatives and friends for the weekend. It seems that nearly every character is carrying a torch of unrequited passion for another. Henrietta, an intellectual sculptor, is in love with John, a shallow lothario married to the meek, pathetic Gerda. Wimpy Edward is in love with Henrietta, but she only has eyes for John. Midge the ingenue has a thing for Edward, who only has eyes for Henrietta. Then there's Veronica, the seductive American actress who was once with John. Now she just happens to have moved in down the lane, and her cigarette lighter is broken. Will John light her Lucky?
On the second day of the group's little party, John is shot dead in the parlor. Christie makes every character a suspect (including the butler) and flings red herrings everywhere. Even after the murderer is finally revealed, another twist or two lies in store.
Other than the ending, the big unexpected feature of this Christie play is the humor. Lady Angkatell is at the center of most if it. "She's very absent-minded," says Crider. "She's just not all there." She is constantly entering rooms and forgetting why she's come or what she's doing carrying a lobster or where she left a mole trap or a basket of eggs.
If the cast follows the script, they can hardly screw it up -- the plot is sharp, the characters are fun and there's no heavy emotional goal to make or miss here, just a great mystery.