The swanky upstate New York home designed by Jeff G. Rack seems the ideal setting for murder, the kind written about by Queen Of Crime Agatha Christie or her American predecessor Mary Roberts Rinehart. Ric Zimmerman has lit the elegant upper class digs for maximum suspense, with candles taking the place of electricity when the lights go out (more than once as we know they will). Bill Froggatt’s sound design provides an eerie, suspenseful musical underscoring to this tale of mystery and impending doom.

If only direction and performances came anywhere close to the collaborative efforts of these three top L.A. design talents in The Bat, the latest production from Beverly Hills’ Theatre 40.

 Unfortunately, such is not the case with Rinehart’s mystery dramedy, easily the weakest of the now 30 productions I have reviewed over the past five years at T40, a major letdown after WOW!s like The Long Weekend, Luv, and The Drawer Boy, and a particular disappointment from a theater company which has had such great success with ensemble period pieces like Laura, The Voisey Inheritance, and Dangerous Corner, and their Agatha Christie hits Spider’s Web and Black Coffee.

The ingredients are all there for another mystery suspense bonanza. Rinehart’s and Avery Hopwood’s 1920 play ran for over two years on Broadway, and was revived twice, spawning a silent film adaptation and two sound remakes, including one with Vincent Price and Agnes Morehead. Its characters engage in witty, at times hilarious repartee even as they recoil in fear from the presence of a mysterious murderer, known only as “The Bat,” in their midst. The suspects are many, the clues (and red herrings) are plentiful, and the final reveal provided this reviewer with at least one “I didn’t that coming” surprise.

But oh ye gods of the theater does the action drag, the victim of too slow pacing throughout. Several of the cast members still seem mid-rehearsal process in the mastery of their lines. A few are simply wooden, without the spontaneity that separates fine acting from mere line readings. One of the performances seems to have wandered in from a Three Stooges farce, and one or two are simply out of place. Though Martin M. Speer receives directorial credit, this reviewer often had the impression that he was watching a group of actors putting on a play entirely on their own, without the guidance that keeps everyone on the same page, insures rat-a-tat-tat dialog, and at the very least, has actors on top of their lines.

 A few in the cast impress, at least comparatively so, though we don’t get to see enough of them, with Chris Petschler as Reginald Beresford and Max Bogner as “The Unknown” entering late and Ross Alden as Richard Fleming not sticking around long, unless you count the half hour or so he spends sprawled on the living room rug. Native Osakan Yas Takahashi, who plays Billy the Butler, a character Rinehart describes in pre-WWII vernacular as an “impassive Jap,” may actually be the strongest of them all, imbuing the dated racial stereotype with a dignity not necessarily found in the script.

 The others (Elizabeth J. Carlisle as Dale Ogden, Veronica Cartwright as Cornelia Van Gorder, Stephen Davies as Dr. Wells, Madison Mason as a post-retirement age Detective Anderson, Michael Perl as Jack Bailey aka Brooks, and Loraine Shields as Lizzie Allen) are probably capable of stronger work given a surer directorial hand and (in some cases) of greater preparation.

The Bat’s original three-act, two-intermission structure has been retained for valid reasons, and though evening curtain is a half hour earlier than usual, at two hours and forty-five minutes (including intermissions) the play runs at least fifteen minutes too long, though not through any fault of the script. Act Three, in particular, drags on and on, the victim of slow pacing and/or unmastered lines.

 The play’s original 1920 timeframe has been jumped forward to the 1930s, allowing designer extraordinaire Michèle Young to costume the entire cast in that decade’s slinky elegance. David Reynolds’ period props are winners as well.

Michael Frank is stage manager, and LizAnne Keigley, Michael Saunders, Abby Siegel, and Talia Kamran production assistants.  The Bat is produced by David Hunt Stafford.

Even the finest theater companies are entitled to an occasional slipup. The Bat is Theatre 40’s.

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

–Steven Stanley
August 2, 2012
Photos: Ed Krieger

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