Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap” has been playing non-stop on the London stage since 1952. The how and why of this phenomenon is anyone’s guess. It is not a particularly clever or good stage mystery, certainly not nearly as good or intriguing as are the film versions of many of her mysteries that have lined book shelves for decades.
Going to see “The Mousetrap” in London is as obligatory for the tourist as is seeing the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. The play also shows up regularly on the regional trail, at community theaters, and in schools across the country all the while earning the trust of the audience to not divulge whodunit. Going to see it at the McCarter, if you’ve never seen it, can at least put you in the conversation.
Yet, as a fellow critic said to me after the show, “The Mousetrap” is somehow always the same, never better, never worse, whether it is in a professional or amateur production. Now that’s a mystery.
So it is with the audiences who attend the production now in the large Matthews Theater at McCarter. The audience is requested at the end of the play to keep silent. This is easier to do than one might imagine as I think I have not only already forgotten whodunit but perhaps as also forgotten all of the suspects involved from the moment the curtain came down.
I do recall that the play begins as a full-blown blizzard rages as seen from the windows of the Grand Hall in an old manor house near London. It seems that Monkhouse Manor has recently been purchased and turned into a bed and breakfast by nervous newlyweds Mollie and Giles Ralston (Jessica Bedford and Adam Green). The rooms have all been booked, and the hosts are eagerly awaiting the arrival of the first guests on their opening weekend. As we are right to suspect, they are in for some surprises from their guests, all of whom seem to be coming courtesy of central casting.
The stately great hall is properly designated to be the common parlor for the guests to gather and also for the sake of the ever thickening plot wherein all the doings are done. It has been handsomely designed by Alexander Dodge to feature an unusually high ceiling from which rows of weirdly architectural stalactites protrude and suggest rows of chessmen or the like. What it means is anybody’s guess.
Although an announcement over the radio lets the hosts know that a ghastly murder has been committed nearby, they graciously welcome the arrival of each guest, who makes a point of shaking off snowflakes on the floor and appearing in turn either nuttier or more eccentric.
Mollie and Giles do their best to be cordial and accommodating to: a young fruity-to-a-fault architect (Andy Phelan), whose off-the-wall behavior is certifiable; the haughty and condescending Mrs. Boyle (Sandra Shipley) who remains until her (oops) in a constant state of disdain and/or umbrage; the highly energized/masculinized Miss Casewell (Emily Young); and the uninvited, scarily mysterious stranger with a foreign accent, Mr. Paravicini (Thom Sesma), whose car got stuck in the snow. There is the one guest, Major Metcalf (Graeme Malcolm), who appears to be free of any neurotic tendencies, but that could be a danger signal. Of course there is the obligatory detective, Sergeant Trotter (Richard Gallagher), who braves the storm in order to announce that one — or more — of them is in mortal danger. Did I mention that the telephone lines are down and the roads are blocked?
Give Christie credit for piling on the red herrings so that every character gets a turn to be the potential murderer and earn our suspicions. Director Adam Immerwahr smartly allows his excellent cast (all of whom take their superficially defined characters to heart), to be amusingly quirky without being totally implausible. I was particularly impressed by the amusingly ingratiating performances of Bedford and Green, who are certainly also not above suspicion. Whether or not you are fooled and/or surprised by the outcome, you will, I assure you, not be tempted to give away or share anything you have seen or heard. Is that good or bad?
If the biggest mystery remains the mystery behind the success of “The Mousetrap,” it shouldn’t stop you from trying to figure it out — like the rest of us.
The Mousetrap, McCarter Theater Center, 91 University Place, Princeton. Wednesday, March 16, at 7 p.m. , and Thursdays, 7:30 p.m., Fridays, 8 p.m., Saturdays, 3 and 8 p.m., and Sundays, 2 p.m., through Sunday, March 27. $25 to $89.50. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.