The Claptrap

When British theater historian J.C. Trewin referred to Agatha Christie's stage plays as "a Midas gift to the theater," he was referring to commercial rather than artistic gold. The woman who remains one of the best-selling, most-translated authors in publishing history mistrusted film as a medium for her blood-soaked tales and all but refused to allow her words to be tainted by what she considered coarse TV limitations. She was reluctant to enter the theater, too, but more from a sense of intimidation (she was long an admirer of various performers of the English stage). She overcame that with her sense of perfectionism, writing her first play, 1930's Black Coffee, after being disappointed with another's adaptation of one of her novels. By that time, she was already becoming a brand name--probably the first woman playwright whose marquee presence was equal to any stage celebrity, male or female, who spoke her dialogue. Over the next three decades, the ticket sales kept pouring in--Ten Little Indians, The Hollow, Witness for the Prosecution and, of course, The Mousetrap, which opened in London in 1952 and has been performed continuously there ever since.

In a nod to this unprecedented playwright-as-star status, the Theatre Three production of her rarely revived The Unexpected Guest opens with Dame Christie's gentle face beaming from inside a picture frame hung over the stage. This gesture also speaks symbolically to the fact that the author looms larger than any particular piece she penned. With the exception of sleuths Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple, who had the benefit of a series of novels to make their personalities indelible with readers, Agatha Christie the matronly poison expert, world traveler and one-time missing person is more interesting than almost any of her fictional creations. Her plays and books are constructions (or, if you're feeling uncharitable, contraptions) in which suspects, killers and victims alike are maneuvered by their creator with little apparent interest in characterization. There's nothing necessarily wrong with this; generations of fans adore her best work for its labyrinthine accumulation of plot detail and discovery, and you can argue that on balance, many writers are terribly lazy with plot because they think they have such intimate knowledge of the human mind and soul. But this emphasis can result in a sense of sameness, of disposability. When you remember what happened, but you can't recall either to whom it happened or who caused it, then you arguably take away less from the experience of her imagination.

Such was my strangely evaporative impression of The Unexpected Guest, a script that, it must be noted, is far from top-shelf Agatha. The theater's designers have done it up like Christie's masterpiece, though. All that cash flowing in from the oft-extended basement run of I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change!, T3's very own The Mousetrap, seems to have found its way to the main stage. Set designer Harland Wright has created a dark-wooded, exotic-rugged, animal-trophied drawing room of a secluded Louisiana mansion (the play's new location), and Patty Williams has stitched up costumes that range from seedy-silky lounge pajamas for a hustling employee to a crisp all-black suit for the housekeeper to at least three sumptuous costume changes for the show's star, Morgana Shaw. Director Kyle McClaran was smart to rely so much on visuals for this show; they're a gorgeous distraction from the reed-thin characters and situations inside the satin duds.

The Unexpected Guest opens with one of those fudged motives that lesser mystery writers regularly use in order to generate action necessary for the story to advance. Michael (Robert Prentiss) seeks help inside the aforementioned bayou estate for a stalled automobile and discovers Laura (Morgana Shaw) standing over her dead, wheelchair-bound husband brandishing one of his pistols. Laura insists at first she's guilty, but something about her eagerness to take the blame makes Michael doubt her. Some (highly unlikely) blend of sexual attraction and empathy makes this stranger embroil himself in the crime, to the extent he forges a clue that leads inspectors Thomas (Darius Warren) and Cadwallader (Trey Albright) to the anguished father of a child the dead man had carelessly killed with his car years before. But who in the household put a cap in the master's callous hide? Out stroll a parade of eccentrics who seemingly harbor both their own homicidal reasons and a desire to shield someone else whom they think is guilty. Mrs. Bennett (Cecilia Flores) is the ever-capable housekeeper who loves to control the family she serves; Mrs. Warwick (Ann Reeves), the victim's ailing mother who readily confesses her son was "a monster"; Henry (David Goodwin), the now-unemployed, lanky male nurse with a taste for uniformed policemen; and Jan (Dean Mounir), the mentally retarded half brother who has no fear of being institutionalized now that the master has taken a bullet through his head.

Further plot synopsis might spoil some surprises, except that The Unexpected Guest harbored few for me; I spotted the killer 20 minutes into a show I'd never seen before. I'm not boasting but using myself as a barometer for the weakness of the script; more than one halfway clever storyteller has kept several paces ahead of me. What's impressive about Christie's best narratives is the way they unite strange or unlikely events with plausible motives and behavior. What you didn't see coming makes total sense in the denouement, and you slap your forehead for not following the obscured if perfectly logical line straight to the culprit. There's little that's sensible--and a lot of obviously specious clues hastily thrown onto the trail--in The Unexpected Guest. The quality of the performances here is high, although director McClaran, a veteran Christie interpreter, has not been able to elicit much soulfulness from his actors to match their technical prowess. They possess the brassy, gestural quality of performers in a '30s movie, which fits but doesn't expand on the playwright's purposes. There are standouts: Mounir segues from man-child to bloodthirsty would-be tyrant with chilling ease; Flores, as always, commands our attention without stealing focus from her co-stars, using her high cheekbones and arched brows to suggest humorlessness hiding a dark secret. I just wish Theatre Three's actors and designers had been given a sturdier Christie script on which to lavish their talents. The Unexpected Guest is charming enough while it stays, but no strong memories will linger after its departure.

Speaking of elaborate and colorful design, there are four stage artists--Zak Herring (scenery), Donna Bailey (costume), Linda Blasé (lights) and Marco Salinas (sound)--whose muses are utterly simpatico for African Tales of Earth & Sky. This latest Dallas Children's Theater production of a script by in-house playwright Linda Daugherty is a case where look and sound don't compensate for characterization but catapult the performers onto a new plane where lights and costume and noise seem to inspire them. Thankfully, DCT has the resources to build an African village full of huts, coconut trees, palm leaves and ant hills; they're as vivid as storybook illustrations for three tall tales about the natural world told by our mistress of ceremonies, the invisible prankster fairy Mmoatia (Liz Mikel). She's stuck with gum sap to a tree by mere mortals (Walter Hardts, Tanya Flangin, Renee Michael, Samson Pleasant) who are weary of her jokes at their expense. Bolstering the idea of a collective human unconscious, Mmoatia is a character who's popped up in innumerable times and cultures--one who must tell stories to free herself. Huffing that humans always want to know "Why, why, why?", she sets about to spin tales that explain the lion's roar; the thunder and lightning; and mosquitoes buzzing in people's ears.

Director Robyn Flatt elicits broad, acrobatic performances from her quintet--refreshingly, there's little hip contemporary realism grafted onto their roles--that are just undifferentiated enough to allow the sets and costumes to remain in the foreground. In this way, African Tales of Earth & Sky makes a concession to the oral tradition, when the storyteller became a mere vessel for larger visions of the universe. When Hardts disappears inside the part of a jittery rat with big straw whiskers who fools lion Pleasant, himself wearing a mane of curly straw and a long tail; or mother Thunder (Michael), speaking in an amplified boom that annoys everyone, attempts to rein in bratty, silver-ribboned daughter Lightning (Tanya Flangin), the integrity of the fable is preserved.

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Jimmy Fowler