The queen of mystery, Agatha Christie, is alive and well in a new production of one of her most famous stories, The Mousetrap, now playing at McCarter Theatre Center. Directed by Adam Immerwahr, her signature mid-century British style meets his fresh vigor to create a murder mystery with flair.
Originally based on a 1947 radio play called Three Blind Mice, it seems there isn’t much room for reinvention within the tight melodrama and period setting. In spite of this, the play remains hugely popular, especially in the United Kingdom, for its twist ending and a traditional plea to the audience to keep the big reveal a secret. In this production, Immerwahr breathes life back into a script that can easily turn into a dusty volume on the murder mystery shelf, especially if you know the ending.
Immerwahr’s direction is packed with energy and verve, and deftly avoids broadcasting the feeling of mystery before it arrives. His nimble cast plays each moment as it comes, rather than in the shadow of an ending two hours away, an easy pitfall in the suspense genre of this era. His inventive yet classic opening sequence sets the tone for the brassy, puzzling fun that lies ahead. He carefully controls the energy and tension to craft a fascinating world in Act 1, and then set up a rollercoaster of suspense in Act 2.
Newlyweds Giles and Mollie Ralston (Adam Green and Jessica Bedford) open a guesthouse in the English countryside and welcome their very first guests, a colorful cast of characters who run the gamut of interesting personalities. Coincidentally, they are all snowed in for the weekend at Monkswell Manor, and after the terrible blizzard subsides, a detective arrives to deliver the bad news. Clues from a recent nearby murder case have led the police to suspect the Ralstons and their guests to be the murderer’s next targets.
The plot twists and turns to lead suspicion here and there as facts are revealed and secrets confessed. The company is uniformly exceptional with standout performances from the dynamic newlywed couple themselves: Bedford and Green, as well as Andy Phelan as a fidgety and expressive Christopher Wren and Richard Gallagher as the passionate young Detective Trotter. Rounding out the ensemble is Sandra Shipley (Mrs. Boyle), Graeme Malcolm (Major Metcalf), Emily Young (Miss Casewell), and Thom Sesma as Mr. Paravicini.
Boosting the strong ensemble is an immaculately constructed environment. Alexander Dodge’s epic scenic design plays tricks with forced perspective and every inch seems to be accusingly pointing to the murderer as the story unfolds. His beautiful British guesthouse setting overflows with detail from the warm hearth to the drafty back stairs. Completing the effect is a subtle yet varied lighting design by Philip S. Rosenberg, rounding out the snowy afternoons, the bright mornings, and the dark, creepy evenings of solving murders by the fireside.
Costume Designer Jess Goldstein finishes off each character with a textured and layered twist. And Sound Designer Nick Kourtides builds each creaking door and haunting radio broadcast to a fever pitch, along with lively shocks of music here and there.
McCarter Theatre Center’s The Mousetrap is the picture of a gorgeous vintage murder mystery with its own unique kick. For plenty of old-fashioned suspense matched with an agile and superb cast, The Mousetrap is a snare you’ll want to get caught in.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with an intermission.