From left to right: Chris Hutchison as Giles Ralston, Shawn Hamilton as Major Metcalf, Dylan Godwin as Christopher Wren, Melissa Pritchett as Mollie Ralston, and Jay Sullivan as Sergeant Trotter in the Alley’s production of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap.

Image: Lynn Lane

Mollie and Giles Ralston are rookie hotel owners, and while they have the bedrooms ready for guests, they weren’t counting on death and deception knocking at their door.

Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap—a murder mystery set in a remote English manor—hasn’t been the West End's longest running play (more than 50 years!) for nothing. What a great selection for the annual Summer Chills pick at The Alley Theatre—not only a great mystery, but one punctuated with comic touches that never distract from the unfolding whodunit. The Mousetrap is also a great ensemble piece, with solid performances from the cast and a perfect melding of setting, costumes, and atmosphere to keep you engaged.

As for the name, you might recall Hamlet rounding up those traveling players and putting on a show “to catch the conscience of the king.” He called his play-within-a-play “The Mousetrap.” And just as in Shakespeare’s tragedy, people are not what they appear, with secrets galore. Part of the delight of the Christie show is seeing those secrets fall away and reveal the true killer, even when there are moments when you kind of suspect that anyone in Monkswell Manor could be the culprit. 

It is hard to be profound in a roughly two-hour mystery, but there are pockets of profundity, which is one reason why this play has stood the test of time.  The effects of child abuse, the nature of justice, the role of personal responsibility, and the question of how well we really know other people—all these themes are laced into Christie’s intricate play without ever being preachy or boring or pat.  Doing the “right thing” is harder than it looks sometimes, and this play reminds us that “justifiable homicide” is not merely an oxymoron in certain contexts.

The set, designed by Linda Buchanan, is a gorgeous old English estate with doors for sneaking away, a glass-paned window to see the falling snow, and a 1940s radio to provide the latest news on recent murders. Directed by James Black, the entire cast melds well, and I loved the timing of the lines, as well as the moments when the stage directions were pushed to give the production a more comic flair than the West End productions I've seen. You won’t want to miss the comic antics of Miss Casewell (Elizabeth Bunch) and Christopher Wren (Dylan Godwin) as they try to drive fellow hotel guest Mrs. Boyle (a wonderful Alice M. Gatling) out of the room.

I also loved Tricia Barsamian’s costumes—particularly in how they fit the quirkiness of each character.  Among my favorites: Christopher Wren’s weird ties, Miss Casewell’s interesting Katharine Hepburn-esque androgyny, and a repellent white Italian suit—in the dead of winter—for the mysterious Mr. Paravicini (Todd Waite). They’re all good choices for heightening the suspense as appearances complicate the audience's assumptions.

A few notes on the performances. Melissa Pritchett, who in the past has been seriously miscast, is wonderful as Mollie Ralston. Her role requires more emotional range than all the other characters combined, and she is deft with the comedy and judicious with the drama. This is the best performance I have seen from this actress, and I look forward to seeing more work from her this season.

Dylan Godwin as Christopher Wren takes the most risks, with a performance requiring both physical agility as well as a quick wit. Who else can say that Tiny Tim from A Christmas Carol is “irritating” in such a hilarious way? He's at one moment puckish, the next, melancholy and evoking deep sympathy from the audience.  It is almost Kafka-esque, and I loved it. I have gone on and on about him as an actor before, and I am still correct about his profound talent. He is also a new addition to the resident company, which is—and needs to be—in transition.

The good news is that the inclusion of Godwin, Shawn Hamilton, and Adam Gibbs (who is not in this play but was amazing as Eddie Fisher in last season’s Cleo) are huge steps forward for The Alley, and it makes me so proud of Houston that its biggest theater player is making such excellent decisions regarding the addition of new company members.  These three are some of the best actors in Houston—among others—and maybe the Alley will continue to recruit such actors in the future. 

Meanwhile, here in The Mousetrap, superlative performances are no mystery but a wonderful gift and a marvel to watch.

Thru Sept. 16. Tickets from $26. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Ave. 713-220-5700. More info and tickets at alleytheatre.org.

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