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Review: ‘Spider’s Web’ at Princeton Summer Theater

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Spider’s Web ends with the unmasking of a murderer, and it starts with… a taste test. In this play’s opening moments, two veddy proper, blindfold-wearing English gentlemen drink glasses of Port and trying to figure out the vintage.

A murder mystery with wine tasting? Who else but Agatha Christie could get away with that? And who else could do it with such reliable style and charm?

Peter Giovine, Pablo Milla, Christopher Damen, Abby Melick, and Alex Vogelsang. Photo by Jake Schade.

Peter Giovine, Pablo Milla, Christopher Damen, Abby Melick, and Alex Vogelsang. Photo by Jake Schade.

Spider’s Web is the story of Clarissa, who rents a country home but finds that life in the country is far from quiet. For one thing, there are lots of people around – a maid, a gardener, and several guests. Her husband Henry, a diplomat, is supposed to be bringing an important dignitary over tonight. Then a surprise visitor appears: a sleazy drug dealer who has married Henry’s ex-wife. Before long, Clarissa discovers a dead body in the drawing room – and then the police show up at the door to investigate. But Clarissa didn’t call the police… so who did?

First staged in London in 1954, Spider’s Web is filled with the familiar touches (and never-saw-it-coming touches) that make Christie such a favorite. If you’re a Christie fan, there’s much here you’ll love. (A secret door, concealed in the wood paneling, is a nice touch that evokes Christie’s forebears like Edgar Wallace.) Yet the plot is more complicated than usual for Christie, and the characters are rather mundane (no colorful sleuths like Poirot here). Also, much of the play’s second half consist of a policeman conducting a repetitive series of interrogations, which bogs things down. And while there’s more humor than in most of Christie’s work, that humor is hit and miss. Jokes about carrying a dead body around the house to hide it from the police seem grossly inappropriate in a play with realistic characters. (The same type of jokes worked much better in Bucks County Playhouse’s recent production Clue On Stage – but that was an outlandish farce that spoofed murder mysteries.)

Ross Barron and Abby Melick. Photo by Jake Schade.

Ross Barron and Abby Melick. Photo by Jake Schade.

At the opening night performance, some of the cast members were still finding their way; projection, enunciation and inflection were inconsistent, making it hard to follow the plot at times. (Pablo Milla’s proper gentleman and Ross Barron’s intrepid cop needed the most work in that department.) But director C. Luke Soucy has elicited fine characterizations from many of his cast members. Abby Melick makes for a terrific Clarissa; Peter Giovine is properly sporty as a lad besotted with her; and Christopher Damen is properly resolute as the ideally-named Sir Rowland Delahaye. As a maid who suspects everyone else of wrongdoing, Lydia Watt draws laughs with her leery expressions. And Alex Vogelsang is nicely boisterous as the gardener – although her build is so slight that it’s hard to believe she could effortlessly carry a grown man’s body around the house.

Joseph Haggerty’s wood-paneled set design makes for a convincing drawing room, and Alex Mannix’s lighting helps deliver the thrills. And Julia Peiperl’s costumes define the characters well, especially for supporting players like Watt and Vogelsang.

Spider’s Web may not be Christie’s best, but even lesser Christie is still pretty darn good. It’ll give you a lot to ponder, and a lot to enjoy.

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with an intermission.

Abby Melick, Alex Vogelsang, and Christopher Damen. Photo by Jake Schade.

Abby Melick, Alex Vogelsang, and Christopher Damen. Photo by Jake Schade.

Spider’s Web plays through July 23, 2017 at Princeton Summer Theater, performing at Hamilton Murray Theater on the campus of Princeton University in Princeton, NJ. For tickets, call (732) 997-0205, or purchase them online.

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