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Civic Springs A Good 'Mousetrap'

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Civic springs a good 'Mousetrap'




(Director Kay) Grismer and company play 'The Mousetrap' fast, scary and witty.

Shouts the front page of Ann Arbor Civic Theatre’s program for “The Mousetrap”: “It’s Not a Play! It’s an Institution!”

Well, yes, it surely is an institution, this indomitable Agatha Christie thriller that’s been playing so long in London that Winston Churchill was still prime minister when it opened. Yet lest we forget, “The Mousetrap” is also a ripping good thriller, as borne out last evening at Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre. For those who’ve never seen it, Christie’s “institution” merrily zigs and zags into multiple surprises that genuinely surprise — the estimated 8 million folks who’ve already seen the play (and dutifully kept mom about whodunit) notwithstanding.

Rightly described as “typical Christie” by Civic director Kay L. Grismer, the play brings together an octet of characters, most of them strangers to one another, at a rural English guest house eerily named Monkswell Manor.

Owned and managed by young couple Giles and Mollie Ralston (Chris Korow and Cathy Lee Collins), the blizzard-buffeted dwelling plays host to five diverse guests. Stranded by a snowstorm are architectural student Christopher Wren (Tom Underwood), a shrimpy youth with a questionable past and indeterminate gender preference; Mrs. Boyle (Sandy Hudson Thomas-son), a huffy spinster and professional complainer; Major Metcalfe (Bob Starring), an unctious, retired warrior, Miss Casewell (Sandra K. Geyer), a slick businesswoman who daringly sports slacks and puffs from a cigarette holder; and Mr. Paravicini (Charles Sutherland), a mysterious, courtly Italian who arrives sans reservation.

Just as our characters try to settle into uneasy cohabitation, there’s a knock at the window. Nimble as Sgt. Preston of the Yukon, Detective Sgt. Trotter (Frederick J. Bock) has arrived — via skis — from London, with grisly news: A Mrs. Lyons has been murdered in an apparent act of vengeance over a long-ago child-abuse case. A pair of notes were found next to the body — one with the address of Monkswell Manor, the other ominously declaring, “This is the first.”

Thus is set in motion a game of deadly wits in which each of our characters knows the murderer is among them — especially after one of their number is offed (in pitch darkness) at the end of Act I. The question is, who — who??? Rapid as wildfire, clues proliferate: a telltale newspaper, a hidden bus ticket, the refusal of one guest to have his/her luggage touched. Paranoia mounts, even between spouses Mollie and Giles, as past secrets come to light and seeds of doubt are planted everywhere.

Early comments such as “All that I need is in this little bag,” take on new, ominous meaning. The tune “Three Blind Mice,” fingered incessantly on the piano, may in fact provide the key to the murders.

Grismer and company play “Mousetrap” fast, scary and witty. The production bubbles with droll touches: the spooky opening of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony as well as “Mars” from Holst’s “The Planets” filter in on the radio, along with the spectral intonations of ac-tor-in-absentia Beverley Pooley. When a murder victim’s name is announced, each character’s face subtly jerks and twists as though in a silent paroxysm of guilt.

Alas, Monkswell Manor doesn’t look especially rustic (especially a gloppy stained-glass window). But Grismer’s cast splendidly fits Christie’s “deliciously macabre” machinations (in the words of one character). It’s difficult to review our thespians without giving crucial surprises away: in one instance, an actor/actress seems woefully miscast until we discover the startling truth of the matter.

Yet tribute must be paid to newcomer Tom Underwood, who takes sheer delight in making the diminutive Christopher Wren as hilariously schizoid as Christie intended. Cackling and spidery as “Dracu-la’s” fly-munching Renfield, Underwood can also turn downright dashing when the moment calls for it. Now that's versatile acting!


Performances will continue at Mendelssohn Theatre through Saturday evening. For ticket information call 662-7282.