Agatha Christie’s work may never have been so amusingly rendered as in Long Beach Playhouse’s production of one of the Miss Marple mysteries– A Murder is Announced. If you like mirth with your mayhem, then this is your cup of tea!
Inspired by the theatricality of old black-and-white mystery movies his mother watched on television, director Gregory Cohen adds melodramatic musical flourishes whenever possible to enhance the shock value of plot twists and character entrances– and to make us laugh. He also manages to bring out every last scrap of potential humor in the play (adapted for the stage by Leslie Darbon) through his actors’ dialogue and stage movements as they deliver the lines of the serious mystery.
The story itself is more morose than this drollness would suggest. Someone has placed an ad in the local morning paper announcing a murder that evening at the home of Ms. Letitia Blacklock (Rachel Thomas-Chappell, in a pitch-perfect performance). Staying with her are her privileged niece and nephew, disdainful Julia (delightfully played by Briana Miller) and arrogant Patrick (Kawika Aguilar), as well as ditzy long-time friend Bunny (Linda Sutera) and crazy, garlic-obsessed housekeeper, Mitzi (Desi Molinari, owning her over-the-top role).
By murder time, the house also includes young mother Phillipa (Caitlin Barry), nosy friend Mrs. Swettenham (Kathleen Fabry) and her son, unemployed writer Edmund (Lee Samuel Tanng). As the plot ravels and then unravels differently, deceptions upon deceptions mount, the past comes back in unusual ways, and no one is exactly who they first seem to be.
In and out from the beginning, keeping track of all the subtle details, is the highly observant Miss Marple (well portrayed by Sarah Green). In this production, though, she is not the self-possessed elderly sleuth you may know from Masterpiece Mystery but a bit aflutter around the local constabulary, Inspector Craddock (Rick Reischman). Accompanying the inspector is young Sergeant Mellors (Zach Sanchez), eager to prove himself but ultimately the source of a lot of Keystone Cop-type humor as he sizes up the characters when they are cross-examined and even fixes a drink while the inspector is busy discussing some old letters.
The 1947 living-room set where all the action takes place is well designed by Spencer Richardson, with wallpaper and fading furniture suitable for the time and Ms. Blacklock’s circumstances. But the costuming (Donna Fritsche) truly stands out for its period beauty and exceptional fit for each character, especially the women, most of whom undergo three dress changes and wear elaborate hairstyles. It’s a pleasure to see them emerge at different times in different outfits, all carried with ease.
This production of A Murder is Announced is certainly less sober than a PBS version of an Agatha Christie novel, but it does justice to the story and characters while taking liberties with tone and texture, which make following the incredible intricacies of the plot downright entertaining. ✦
A Murder is Announced continues at the Long Beach Playhouse Mainstage Theatre, 5021 E. Anaheim St., through Feb. 11, with shows Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $14 to $24. For tickets and information, call the box office at (562) 494-1014 or visit lbplayhouse.org .