Review: ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’ at Hedgerow Theatre in Rose Valley, PA

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Among the many traditions at Hedgerow Theatre is a fondness for cozy English mysteries, especially Agatha Christie’s. The Mysterious Affair at Styles is their newest production, and it has everything you’d want in a Hedgerow mystery; it even has Zoran Kovcic returning to his most frequent role of the past few decades, Agatha Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot. If you’re a Christie fan, you know what to expect – and in this case, that’s a good thing.

Shaun Yates and Zoran Kovcic. Photo courtesy of Hedgerow Theatre.
Shaun Yates and Zoran Kovcic. Photo courtesy of Hedgerow Theatre.

Styles was Christie’s first novel, written in 1916 and published in 1920. It’s a typical whodunnit of the time, set in a large English country estate populated by an extended family. The family is consumed with jealousy and petty squabbles, and they have a housemaid who sees, and says, way too much. Imagine Downton Abbey if the Dowager Countess had been poisoned with strychnine – which, come to think of it, doesn’t seem like a bad idea – and you’ve got The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

Jared Reed adapted Christie’s novel for the stage and also directs. He sets the mood very well, staggering the suspects across the stage at key moments. He also designed the lighting, which is employed very effectively to build suspense. But the plot of Styles is rather mechanical and talky. Reed’s script jumps quickly from clue to clue, leaving little room for anything especially dramatic –and the characters are more superficial than usual even for Christie. Still, the story hits all the points a Christie fan expects, and does it efficiently.

One problem with Styles – a problem that may be unsolvable – is the way the solution is revealed. In the novel, Christie established herself as the “Queen of Crime” by using a neat bit of subterfuge to divert her readers from the murderer’s identity. On the page it seems ingenious, but onstage, it just makes things drag on too long. In the play’s final scene, it takes over 25 minutes (and some lengthy, digressive speeches) for Poirot to explain the plot and reveal the names of those responsible.

While the old-fashioned dialogue and the setting (plus some references to World War I espionage) seem to set the show in the novel’s era, Kayla Speedy’s costumes were designed for a show set in the present day. One of the women wears a chic, modern pants suit, and two of the men wear navy sports coats with tan slacks. Even Poirot isn’t immune from odd costuming – he wears brown-and-white wingtips that clash with his navy blue suit and gold vest.

Kovcic is lovably condescending and impatient as Poirot, making pronouncements such as “Surely it is obvious” about things that seem, to mere mortals, completely obscure. Shaun Yates is appropriately confused and mild-mannered as Poirot’s narrating sidekick Captain Hastings. Kovcic and Yates also designed the sets, which consist largely of a series of door frames and window frames that appear magically whenever needed.

While the cast’s English accents are variable, their voices are strong even without amplification. And there are some excellent performances throughout, including Emily Parker as a flighty houseguest, Brock D. Vickers as an irresponsible playboy (you can tell he’s not dependable because he doesn’t wear a tie), and Stacy Skinner as the imperious lady of the manor.

Zoran Kovcic with, from left, Ned Pryce, Bonnie Baldini, Emily Parker and Brock D. Vickers. Photo courtesy of Hedgerow Theatre.
Zoran Kovcic with, from left, Ned Pryce, Bonnie Baldini, Emily Parker and Brock D. Vickers. Photo courtesy of Hedgerow Theatre.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles may not be a perfect stage adaptation, but it gives you just about everything you’d want from an Agatha Christie mystery. And if you’re one of Christie’s loyal fans, The Mysterious Affair at Styles is as comfortable as an old pair of slippers.

Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, including two intermissions.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles plays through May 8, 2016 at Hedgerow Theatre – 64 Rose Valley Road, in Rose Valley, PA. For tickets, call (610) 565-4211, or purchase them online.