Robert Schneider in Connecticut
24 October 2022
With 70 years of practice, reviewers have learned how to write about The Mousetrap: treat it like a sporting event. When the players take the field; they know the rules and their positions, so they ought to know what to do. When the lights go up it’s as if the referee blew his whistle, the starting gun went off or somebody gravely intoned “Start your engines!”
The ensemble. Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson.
Now the Yanks want to play the game, too — and on a thrust stage, no less.
I suspect choosing to open their season with Agatha Christie’s venerable who-dun-it was something of a guilty pleasure for Hartford Stage. The work plays to their design strength and strong production values and to the geriatric segment of their audience, of which I am a part.
What’s more, the actors are sure to have fun with the heightened style; The Mousetrap is to British theatre what kabuki is to Japan. The choice remains a guilty pleasure because, in the wake of recent events, theatres all over the country are serving up double doses of social awareness and topical insight. It’s difficult to defend The Mousetrap on these grounds, but in a programme interview, director Jackson Gay does her best. She starts by pointing out that the play responded to a real-life scandal, the horrific abuse suffered by three foster children on a Shropshire farm in 1945. One of the children died.
“I think Christie is trying to show us that we all have a responsibility to take care of people who are more vulnerable than we are. Even if you’re not the person who pulls the trigger, if you’re the person who does nothing, you’re part of it. You caused this tragedy as well. You have a responsibility to your community, and you can’t just push it away and forget about it. When you stop caring about people who are less fortunate, it starts eating at you from inside. It causes your whole society—your whole country to rot. And while we want audiences to laugh and have fun and be scared, this is the underlying theme of the piece.”
Christopher Geary and Sam Morales (foreground) and Tobias Segal (rear).
Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson
Certainly, anything that can make life better for poor and neglected children—of which Hartford has a great many—will be welcome. If Ms. Gay’s words (and her production) aren’t intended as an out-and-out call to arms against poverty and abuse, they exemplify the seriousness on which successful Mousetraps depend. You can have fun with the play, but the minute it becomes just fun, the soufflé collapses. When that happens, the creaking hinges of Monkswell Manor will no longer cover Dame Agatha’s creaking postwar dramaturgy.
In the worst of cases, a “just fun” approach invites the audience to exercise prejudices from 70 years ago to pick the murderer today: Christopher Wren is effeminate; a male who’s interested in home décor and loves to cook; he’s probably unbalanced. Miss Casewell is probably a lesbian (and therefore unbalanced). Paravicini is a foreigner; Mrs. Boyle is a battle axe—don’t they all deserve to die? Among so many deplorable types, it’s as much fun to pick the next victim as to pick the probable killer.
At Hartford Stage, however, the danger of ridiculing the material (and the characters) is mostly avoided. The moment-to-moment annoyances of being snowbound in a guesthouse run by a young couple that’s just starting out, tolerating the other guests and enduring lengthy harangues by a policeman who claims there’s a murderer on the loose are largely respected and played straight. It’s all made pretty much real; not just the horror of an incipient murder, but the horror of everything, not least the cooking.
How did this happen? I have my own list of suspects.
I suspect the vocal and dialect coach, Thom Jones (if that really is his name) of doing an excellent job, although I do wish Brendan Dalton’s Sergeant Trotter varied his tone and volume more.
I suspect Fabian Fidel Aguilar’s costumes of flirting with the board game Clue, but never consummating an alliance with it. The high-waisted, double-pleated trousers on the gentlemen clearly spent WWII in a trunk only to emerge when their owners were demobbed. The ladies’ hats are marvelous.
I suspect Riw Rakkulchon of designing a set which somehow suggests grandeur even as it induces claustrophobia. Almost anything on it can be used as a weapon. Lighting designer Krista Smith is his able partner in crime.
I suspect the entire cast of paying particular attention to their movements on stage. Jason O’Connell as Paravicini and Ali Skamangas as Miss Casewell are especially mesmerizing; we might be watching a ballet.
I suspect Sam Morales, playing Mollie Ralston, has some supernatural gift of concentration that allows her character to worry about each thing in turn: the doorbell, the kitchen, the husband, the policeman and the possibility of getting murdered. She never muddles them and never displays generic angst.
Lastly, I suspect director Gay of achieving snappy entrances and exits from the vomitoria of Hartford Stage even though none of them are fitted with doors—and for being the mastermind of this whole un-criminal enterprise.
As on the West End, the audience is asked after each performance not to reveal the ending. If you’re looking to me to do it here, think again.