Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey / Delaware Valley

Spider's Web
Princeton Summer Theater
Review by Cameron Kelsall

Abby Melick, Alex Vogelsang, and Christopher Damen
Photo by Jake Schade
Even hardcore Agatha Christie fans are to be forgiven if they haven't heard of Spider's Web, her 1954 thriller that all but vanished after a modestly successful West End run. As director C. Luke Soucy writes in a program note for his Princeton Summer Theater production, "Spider's Web might be the least well-known work of the world's most well-known writer." Christie, who came to playwriting in the middle of her brilliantly successful career as a mystery writer, was still finding her sea legs as a dramatist; this early effort has been largely overshadowed by the more polished Witness for the Prosecution and The Mousetrap. And Soucy's fusty and often stultifying production gives us several clues as to why.

Are the faults solely the provenance of the script? I'm not entirely sure. Spider's Web comes across a little shakier in its execution than the drum-tight Witness—which the Pennsylvania-based Bristol Riverside Theater presented in a crackerjack revival a few months ago—and feels slightly overlong, weighed down by several scenes that seem to reinforce points already made. But, at its heart, it contains a classic Christie murder mystery; an intriguing cast of characters, both highbrow and low; and enough bait-and-switch moments to keep the audience guessing right up until the end.

The action takes place in the well-appointed country home of Clarissa Hailsham-Brown (Abby Melick), the pretty young wife of an older diplomat (Ross Barron) and doting stepmother to his teenage daughter Pippa (Meagan Raker). When Pippa's ne'er-do-well stepfather (Pablo Milla) turns up dead in Clarissa's drawing room, she and her houseguests must concoct a suitable story to convince the local police inspector (also played by Barron in a clever bit of double casting) of their innocence. But in true Christie fashion, a strong suggestion persists that the actual killer might be among those already present.

Soucy's production knocks it out of the park from a physical perspective—Joseph Haggerty's austerely rendered study is one of the most impressive sets I've seen from this company, and lighting designer Alex Mannix captures the moody dread that settles in among the assembled parties. (Julia Peiperl's costumes are another matter—particularly the wide-lapelled leisure suits worn by the men, which would have been more appropriate in a 1970s Neil Simon comedy.) But Soucy errs in foregrounding the subtle comedy that exists in all of Christie's works, turning a tale of darkness into a de facto farce. Clarissa believes she knows the true identity of the murderer, and is willing to go to any lengths to protect that person, but this determination largely gets lost as the cast strives for cheap and easy laughs. I too often felt like I was watching an inconsequential (and not very funny) comedy of manners, while longing for a taste of the psychological dread that serves as a hallmark of many Christie works—here espoused by Sir Rowland Delahaye (Christopher Damen), who reminds his friends that barbarous acts are committed by people of all social backgrounds.

Several cast members make strong impressions, particularly Melick, who brings a winning effervescence to Clarissa. Damen also commands the stage as a firm but gentle voice of reason throughout. But even several performances into the run (which concludes next weekend), a handful of actors still appeared to be finding their way into the text. More finely shaded performances would have been welcome from Alex Vogelsang (as the estate's mysterious groundskeeper, Miss Peake) and Lydia Watt (who plays Clarissa's enigmatic maid, Mrs. Elgin). Although Barron cuts a fine figure as both Mr. Hailsham-Brown and the police inspector, he does little to differentiate the two characters beyond a change of accent.

Many audience members will find Spider's Web a pleasant summer diversion, perhaps akin to losing oneself in a murder mystery novel on a long, hot afternoon. (Indeed, the crowd at the performance I attended roared their approval throughout.) But, unlike Soucy, I find myself less convinced that its long absence from the repertoire represents an injustice. And even if it does, this production fails to make a compelling case for its reintroduction.

Princeton Summer Theater's production of Spider's Web continues at Hamilton Murray Theater on Princeton University's campus in Princeton, New Jersey, through Sunday, July 23, 2017. Tickets ($24.50-29.50) can be purchased online at tickets or by calling (732) 997-0205.

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