The Butler Did It 

Community theater at its dreariest.

Agatha Christie's popular thriller The Mousetrap has been running steadily for fifty years in London. Apparently there are still people who don't know that the butler did it. Okay, I just made essentially the same silly joke about the play that Altarena Playhouse's managing director John Maio did in a talk before the show started. I'm not proud of that. I'm also not proud that I didn't figure out who the killer was until he revealed himself (or herself?), late in the second act. I was thinking it was someone else altogether, and I'd been pleased as punch at how I was cleverly ignoring Christie's plentiful red herrings.

Molly Ralston has inherited a large house from her aunt, and with her husband Giles decides to run it as a guest-house. On the first day of business, five cantankerous people, each with some sort of secret, show up to stay. Of course, they all become snowbound. Into their icy wonderland comes Detective Sergeant Trotter, convinced that a killer obsessed with the nursery rhyme "Three Blind Mice" is in the house. The perp has already strangled the farmer's wife in London and now has three "mice" to kill. Everyone comes to distrust everyone else, and then the lights go out.

The Mousetrap, much like Christie herself, is one of the grand old dames. An isolated house, a group of uneasy strangers, a big storm, the phone lines down, and a killer on the loose. Sounds like a surefire recipe for tension and suspense. In the Altarena production, however, the suspense for me was how long the second act could drag on, with the police officer hauling everyone into the sitting room to be interrogated while the actors dispersed to other parts of the house again and again. I found myself calculating how many characters could die before the killer would become evident. Finally I started thinking about the movie Groundhog Day. Across from me, a boy was playing Hangman with his mother.

It's community theater, so I'm trying not to act like a vicious old cat, but half the cast couldn't keep their accents nailed on to save their souls. I'm of the school that believes that if all the actors can't do the accent, it's more convincing if none of them bother. Sure, it's a risk to do a play set in Britain with American voices, but it's ultimately less distracting than watching actors struggle. Tweed Conrad, Michele Beauvoir, and John Anthony Nolan are the most convincing of the lot, as hostess Molly Ralston, the supercilious Mrs. Boyle, and the grandfatherly Major Metcalf respectively. I don't think I'm giving too much away when I say that Mrs. Boyle is the first to get knocked off; the audience is rooting for someone to strangle her, nasty as she is. Beauvoir captures the lady of the manor quality perfectly, complaining about the lack of "a proper staff" while running a figurative white glove over everything and everyone she encounters.

The rest of the cast is a mixed bag. David Stein, as Giles, is one of the accent-killers, but the tension between himself and Patrick Dowling as Christopher Wren, the odd young man who appears be trying to seduce Giles' wife, is very believable. Dana Zook-Short is truly icy as the mysterious Miss Casewell, who along with Wren might be queer. It's hard to tell if that last was Christie's intent, and if so, why are the gay characters the most troubled-appearing? The questions I find interesting about this story go unanswered, or are answered in a glancing way; perhaps if I see it again in fifty years (for it will probably still be running), I'll get past whodunit.


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