After what it terms “an extremely successful opening” of its first offering of the season, “Pippin,” Princeton Summer Theater has staged the rarely performed and little known “Spider’s Web” by famed mystery writer Agatha Christie.
It helps to put the origins of the play in perspective. It’s 1953 and British movie actress Margaret Lockwood — known for her starring role in Alfred Hitchcock’s mystery film “The Lady Vanishes” — is impressed with the London productions of Christie’s 1952 hit play “The Mousetrap” (the longest continuously running play in history and still on stage in London) and hears about rehearsals for a new Christie play, “Witness for the Prosecution.” She then begs the best-selling mystery novelist-turned-playwright to write a new comedy-mystery play for her.
Surprisingly Christie agrees and writes one very quickly during the final rehearsal weeks of “Witness.” The plot is built on four scenes Christie had already written in novel form and focuses on a British diplomat’s second wife, the storytelling Clarissa, and her discovery of a corpse behind the couch in the drawing room in their rented home in Kent —right before an important secret meeting.
“Spider’s Web” opened in London in mid-September of 1954 and was not particularly well received by the critics. One commented: “There will always be some people who find it hard to laugh at jokes about the disposal of corpses.” And Lockwood as the central role of Clarissa was not noticeably praised either. But the public obviously loved the show, and it became one of three Christie shows to play several seasons in the West End. It ran for 774 performances.
The PST production in the hands of director Luke Soucy and a wonderful company of eight actors agrees with the public’s response and will provide you with a delicious evening. And while you will undoubtedly notice the work has moments that seem to sag a bit, this cast is so strongly confident that you simply won’t care. You will certainly have your own favorites, but mine included fresh and pert Abby Melick as Clarissa. She recently graduated from Princeton and is on her way to the Dominican Republic as a Latin American fellow. And Ross Barron, a Princeton graduate who has already studied theater at Stella Adler in this country and Guildhall School in London, handles the tricky role of the Inspector with great authority, completely commanding several scenes.
You will also admire Christopher Damen as Sir Rowland, Pablo Milla as Hugo, and Peter Giovine as Jeremy. The males have more to do in this mystery than the females (probably due to Miss Lockwood and her requests.) But Alex Vogelsang, Lydia Watt, and Meagan Raker are perfect in their roles. The set is a thing of beauty, very British and exquisitely decorated. Credit set designer Joseph Haggerity and give an additional pat on the back to lighting designer Alex Mannix.
Director Soucy points out in a program note that Christie’s world is one in which disorder is always temporary, crime is always punished, and truth will always win out. If you think about it, that might well be boring in large doses. But Soucy does a magnificent job of keeping everything moving and tempering his comedy with zaps of reality. The cast enthusiastically responds. You won’t get many opportunities to see this show. Grab it now.
Spider’s Web, Princeton Summer Theater, Murray Dodge Hall, Princeton University. Thursday, July 20, through Sunday, July 23, at 8 p.m. with a 2 p.m. show Saturday and Sunday. $24.50 to $29.50. 732-997-0205 or www.princetonsummertheater.org.
The season continues with Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” July 27 through August 6, and contemporary American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Obie-award winning “Appropriate,” August 10 through 20.