Civic Theatre’s ‘Unexpected Guest’ Uneven
By Norman Gibson
When it’s good, the Ann Arbor Civic Theater production of Agatha Christie’s “The Unexpected Guest” is energetic, moody and dramatic.
When it’s not quite so good, it’s not too full of faults and at its worst, the whodunit is a lot of carefully concocted exposition calculated to keep one guessing.
Director Darlene Hartford has achieved a very expectant moment as the curtain goes up on Don Stewart’s set, which is bathed in purple light with ship foghorns groaning off the coast of South Wales.
PROBABLY NO AUDIENCE will be ready for such an intense beginning and the before-curtain talking continues into the moody moment, tormenting some of the effect and resulting in shushing of others by those who snap to attention the moment a stage curtain goes up.
Stewart’s set is some sort of symbol for the entire production. It is painted canvas but it seems to give the impression of expensive wood paneling until the lights come up full on it and you see it for the stage flats and paint it is.
This is how the cast goes at its performance. When it is creating dramatic moments full of light and shadow, the production has dimension, not to mention suspense.
When the full weight of Christie rattling off facts and figures, some leading and some misleading, is on the cast, it lapses into recital rather than showing a full-blown dramatic understanding.
One of the cast escapes the syndrome completely and others nearly are up to the occasion.
PERRY MALLETTE, bless him, makes his one and only scene an engagement of wits, which is what the entire production should be. Mallette plays the victim’s valet and as he verbally duels with the boy friend of the victim’s wife (you begin to see how everybody has a motive), the production suddenly leaps to life.
Robert J. Starring, in the role of the boyfriend, doesn’t suffer from the exchange, acting-wise, and he’s a rather good actor, anyway, but he seems to need a moment of challenge to feed on.
Peter Greenquist, the inspector who comes to interpret the clues, has a neat, smooth, dapper manner of walking around the old mansion in search of the one link that will pin the blame on somebody.
GREENQUIST MAY be playing all the smooth operatives, English and otherwise, who have taken to the stage in quest of the criminal but he brings something different to the role. He seems to be presenting a sleuth who has not only a keenness of mind but a historical interest in crime and the capture of criminals, a respect for an intellect equal to his. This is about the only way a Christie misanthrope can be caught anyway.
Deborah Kay Meuller and Desmond P. Ryan have a real challenge in getting the vehicle rolling in the first place. After the tremendous introduction that features Jim Kaiser’s lighting, they have to plow through what the dead guy’s doing slouched in his chair in the livingroom and go into the backgrounds of everybody who lives in the house.
They do a good job but there seem to be moments where they could pause, reflect and build suspense, which any theatrical director would call “reacting.”
Mueller is the frightened wife of the victim. She’s most frightened because she is holding the smoking gun when Ryan comes through her French doors looking for help in getting his car out of the ditch in front of the fog-bound house.
THOSE WHO ARE in the house are the aging faithful servant ably played by Margie Cohen, the imaginative young, bloodthirsty son played by Phillip Potter, his grandmother, who is played by Carol Katz.
Bobb James eventually appears as the police sergeant and what he finds in the chair is Fred Rico, who always has his back to the action. Silent, unmoving, he’s the victim.
Dianne Lloyd’s costumes help define the characters who wear them.
Further performances are at 8 p .m. today through Saturday.