FLORIDA WEEKLY EXCLAIMS: TRUE TO AGATHA CHRISTIE, SEASON OPENER AT FLORIDA REP KEEPS YOU GUESSING!
Richard is dead.
And no one is grieving.
Not his mother, not his half-brother, not even his wife.
He was a cruel man, an alcoholic, sadistic.
Before sustaining an injury, he was a big game hunter in Africa, mercilessly killing animals for sport. Confined to a wheelchair after that, he still killed animals, taking a special glee in shooting local dogs and cats. Years ago, he even recklessly hit and killed a child with his car, but got away with it.
It’s easy, as an audience member, to not feel regretful about this untimely death.
“The Unexpected Guest,” playing at Florida Repertory Theatre through Nov. 18, starts off on a promising note. Mystery maven Agatha Christie opens the play with a dead body and, soon after, a confession.
You might think that would make for a very short play.
You’d be wrong.
Practically everyone in the house is suspect, from the mother to the wife to yes, even the butler, who was more of a valet/personal assistant for Richard, who is now very, very dead.
Lou Sumrall, Margaret Loesser Robinson and Brendan Powers in “The Unexpected Guest.”
Director Robert Cacioppo creates a great atmosphere from the outset.
It’s a foggy November night in 1958 South Wales, when a stranger (Lou Stumrall) stumbles into a house, having run his car off the road.
He finds the corpse in a wheelchair in the study. (Bert Scott has designed a book-lined, wood-paneled room, with half a dozen stuffed animal heads mounted on the walls.) He soon discovers the newly widowed Laura (Margaret Loesser Robinson) hiding in the study. Ms. Robinson plays the role as a Hitchcockian heroine: the icy-cold blonde who could be a coldblooded murderer, or who might simply in shock.
Costume designer Stefanie Genda has dressed her in a Dior-inspired strapless gown with an off-the-shoulder short jacket, in a shimmery blue/ black material. With Ms. Robinson’s striking looks and outfit, it is difficult to keep your eyes off of her; you can understand why the stranger who has stumbled into this murder scene would want to help protect her.
Laura quickly admits to the murder. But this is an Agatha Christie mystery, so nothing is as simple as it seems.
When the police arrive — Inspector Thomas (Larry John Meyers) and his underling, Sergeant Cadwallader (Brian Hatch) — suddenly everyone seems suspect.
Is it Angell, the valet/personal attendant? Miss Bennett, the household’s nurse? Richard’s mentally challenged half-brother? His wife? His mother? The next-door neighbor?
Everyone, it seems, has a motive.
Richard, after all, was a despicable man. His survivors refer to him as “a monster” and “a beast.”
What appears in the beginning to be a simple murder grows more complicated and murky as the play progresses.
Audience members are encouraged to guess the identity of the murderer at intermission via ballot, and I overheard many discussions about who it could possibly be. (I also heard complaints that Inspector’s Welsh accent was too thick and that the wife was difficult to hear.)
“The Unexpected Guest” isn’t Ms. Christie’s best. And those more used to quicker-paced TV mysteries and thrillers might find this a bit slow. There’s tons of exposition in the first act, which runs 90 minutes —about 50 percent longer than most first acts, nowadays.
But it makes up for it in the second act, where possible suspects are considered and then eliminated, one by one.
The play also reveals adultery, blackmail, deceit and lies … and red herrings galore. In this ensemble piece, anyone could be guilty.
David Breitbarth is chilling as Angell, with anger at the world bubbling just underneath his polite, solicitous demeanor.
Britt Michael Gordon, who was so wonderful as the deaf son in a hearing family in “Tribes,” plays the mentally challenged half-brother, Jen, who’s fascinated with guns and blood. His behavior’s erratic and unpredictable.
Carrie Lund makes the most of her role, the meek, quiet family nurse who seems to take special glee in taunting Jen, her eyes gleaming with delight. That scene is one of the play’s highlights.
Richard’s mother, Mrs. Warwick (Kate Young) seems almost bored by all the proceedings. Limping about on a cane, she reveals to another character that she doesn’t have long to live … and passes along a mysterious letter.
Then there’s the neighbor, a politician up for election who has secrets to hide. He’s played with great gravity by Brendan Powers. He and Mr. Breitbarth have a scene together full of suspense and drama, in which one threatens the well being of the other.
And Ms. Robinson leaves us flipflopping: Should we pity her or fear her?
Mr. Sumrall, as the poor motorist who stumbles upon the body, is the lone outsider; his character is a standin for the audience, as he is introduced to all the various characters of the Warwick household and its history.
Act II moves much more quickly than the first act and even involves some humor, as the characters find themselves even more entangled with each other and their schemes.
The audience not only laughed, but groaned and gasped through the performance as pertinent facts were revealed.
Ms. Christie’s plot contains more twists than a road with hairpin turns.
And Joseph Oshry’s lighting and John Kiselica’s sound design help make the experience even spookier.
The play has some slow spots, yes, but the last minutes of “The Unexpected Guest” sent chills running up and down my spine. ¦