Theatre 40 has another Agatha Christie hit on its hand with The Queen Of Crime’s 1954 comedic mystery Spider’s Web. Though not quite on a par with T40’s previous Christie gem Black Coffee (Dame Agatha’s plotting and the cast’s British accents are slightly less razor-sharp this time), Spider’s Web nonetheless makes for a thoroughly entertaining brain teaser with nearly as many laughs as you’d expect in an English farce.

In fact, Spider’s Web’s very funny opening scene, which has a couple of elderly gents opining on the merits of three apparently quite different-tasting glasses of port—only to learn that all three have been filled from the same decanter—might easily have been written by Alan Ayckbourn.

Soon, however, the seeds of impending murder begin to be sown with the arrival of the caddish Oliver Costello (Umberto Pecorino) at the Kent home of Henry and Clarissa Hailsham-Brown (Eric Boles and Julie Lancaster) and Henry’s teenage daughter Pippa (Ilona Kulinska).  Costello informs Clarissa of his recent marriage to Henry’s ex-wife Miranda, a mess of a woman whose drug addiction has left Pippa emotionally scarred, adding that he and Miranda now want nothing more than Pippa’s return to her maternal home. Not surprisingly, Clarissa accuses Oliver of blackmail, and though the foreigner denies any ill intent, Clarissa and Pippa are left disquieted by his visit.

Meanwhile, a trio of weekend visitors are keeping things lively at the Hailsham-Browns, including the abovementioned port samplers Sir Roland Delahaye (David Hunt Stafford) and Hugo Birch (Philip Persons). Also visiting is handsome young Jeremy Warrender (Grinnell Morris), an eligible bachelor whose good looks and charm might give Henry pause for alarm were he not heading off to the local airport to bring back a mysterious foreign diplomat to the Hailsham-Brown abode for a top secret meeting with the British Prime Minister. Adding to the mix of quirky Christie characters is recently hired gardener Mildred Peake (Amy Tolsky), whose presence at the Hailsham-Browns sends their cook Miss Elgin (LizAnne Kiegley) into one conniption after another.

Not surprisingly, one of the above ends up murdered.

Though much of the fun of any Agatha Christie mystery is in letting the master storyteller astound you with her ingenuity, Theatre 40 sleuths may wish to pay close attention to a) the secret drawer in the desk left by the home’s previous owner, antique dealer Mr. Sellon; b) the secret panel leading from living room to library; c) an envelope containing three sheets of paper, each with the signature of a famous Brit; d) a phone call and visitor, both inquiring after a certain Mrs. Brown; e) a couple of remarks made by an unknowing Pippa; and f) a curiously cheap house rental fee.

Theatergoers unfamiliar with the Christie oeuvre may be every bit as astounded by just how funny Spider’s Web turns out to be, particularly as performed by a tiptop cast of Theatre 40 regulars under Bruce Gray’s agile direction. It’s a real treat to see Lancaster and Morris reunited for the fourth time on the T40 stage … and each as charming as ever. Richard Hoyt Miller is a super-duper Inspector Lord, assisted by a droll Peter Monroe as Constable Jones. Boles, Persons, and Stafford are as solid as ever, and new company member (and recent Beverly Hills High grad) Kulinska exhibits talent and stage presence in her first T40 appearance. Kiegley is a hoot as the up-in-arms Miss Elgin, as is Theatre 40 newcomer Pecorino (veteran of such European productions as No Horse For The Handkerchief-Heads and Enema). Completing the cast as only she can is scene stealer extraordinaire Tolsky, absolutely fabulous as the boisterous, broccoli-loving Miss Peake.

Theatre 40 scored a pair of Ovation Award nominations for Black Coffee’s set and costume designs, and Spider’s Web’s prove equally meritorious. Scenic designer Jeff G. Rack returns with yet another superbly designed English country home (props by Evan Pavlica), and costume designer Michele Young’s creations are just-right evocations of the mid-1950s. Ellen Monocroussos’s lighting design and Bill Froggatt’s sound design are pitch-perfect as well. Spider’s Web is produced by Theatre 40 Artistic Director Stafford. Rhonda Lord and Rachel Manheimer are assistant directors and Stuart James Galbraith is dialect coach.

Theatergoers are advised to note Spider’s Web’s earlier-than-usual 7:30 p.m. curtain. With a web as tangled and tangy as Dame Agatha Christie has spun, it would be a crime to miss even one of its mysterious, mirthful minutes.

Theatre 40, 241 S. Moreno Dr., Beverly Hills.

–Steven Stanley
August 11, 2011
Photos: Ed Krieger

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