Hillary Clemens as Clarissa Hailsham-Brown in Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web. Photo credit KC Actors.
On paper, a comic mystery sounds like the best of two popular genres, a perfect entertainment to take our minds off global catastrophe.
Unfortunately, on the opening night of Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web, from Kansas City Actors, neither comedy nor mystery took flight. But both came close enough to make one wish they had. If the comedy was creaky, the mystery convoluted, the auditorium hot, there was nearly enough will from audience and company to overcome these adverse conditions.
At its 1954 debut, Spider’s Web was presented as a spoof of whodunnit clichés. In 2022, it’s hard to see the spoof for the clichés. Like the long-locked false desk drawer which, forced open at last, reveals nothing of value inside, this little-known Agatha Christie is justifiably obscure.
Here’s the spoiler alert: plot elements disclosed hereafter apply not only to this play, but also to any random episode of Scooby Doo. That’s right, Shaggy. The murder’s solution depends not only on the aforementioned trick desk drawer, but also a secret bookcase door, invisible ink, voodoo spells, blackmail, a shadowy narcotics ring, false identities, bungled alibis and valuable misprinted postage stamp, not to mention a plate of ham sandwiches. No wonder the evening runs nearly three hours.
One’s heart cannot but sink when, at the two-hour mark, the lights come up, for a second intermission, on a floor strewn with red herrings and no decent clue in sight. Like the heroine whose playful, fantabulizing nature is laboriously established in the plodding and under-eventful first act, this hole-ridden mystery tries to juggle too much. Having forgotten its core mission, it is forced to chuck a bewildering number of random, unintelligible plot contrivances into its frantically messy third act.
Spider’s Web was written by Christie at the request of a leading film star of the day, with the lead character of Clarissa Hailsham-Brown designed to showcase the star’s trademark vivacity and wit. That sometimes gives the play’s supporting characters (including Teisha Bankston, Patrick Beasley, Logan Black, Phil Fiorini and Trevor French) little to do beyond remarking upon these charms. Fortunately, Hillary Clemens, an Alison Brie ringer in appearance and affect, ably carries the huge role on her petite shoulders. Her sparkling, assured performance does much to carry the evening, with John Rensenhouse, as the experienced and steady-witted Inspector Lord, providing the exactly right strong foil.
Lauren Long’s costumes help establish Christie’s usual stock characters, with Clemens’s character especially well served by a vintage, crinoline-poufed dress as perky as herself. With a subtly conveyed, low-boil Peter Lorre menace, Eric Palmquist (previously excellent in the Unicorn’s Vietgone) brings depth to a small, ludicrous role as a narcotics-dealing, wife-stealing, rare-stamp thief. Criston Starks shines in a difficult role as Clarissa’s troubled stepdaughter Pippa, whose hunger after a “supper” of cookies and milk and deliberate drugging seems to have been a source of humor in the 1950s. And Ashlee LaPine’s bright, voluble energy nearly salvages the see-saw actions of gardener Mildred Peake.
This production is mounted at the Goppert Theatre at Avila University, rather than KC Actors’ home at Union Station, and perhaps the change in venue accounts for a staging that works less smoothly than usual. While Rachel Eilts’s set design and Talia Hinckley’s lighting effectively suggest the grandeur of an English country manor, two furnishings that play key (and frequent) roles in the plot — a secret bookcase door and an antique desk with hidden drawer — detract rather than fascinate. Budget, or lack thereof, is clearly the issue with the disappointing secret bookcase door — although a more clearly defined opening mechanism would have gone a long way to sell it. As for the antique desk, it is puzzlingly positioned directly behind an equally large, if very attractive, sofa, rendering it — and therefore several important scenes — wholly or partially hidden for many audience members, depending on one’s sight lines.
Director Darren Sextro does his best, but the material is not with him. Like the cheap port of the protracted opening drinking scene, Spider’s Web has not improved with age. Even the most precise execution could not salvage the script’s lumpy pacing and uneven tone, which on opening night were little helped by uncertain lines, wobbly accents and that unintentionally hidden desk. This well-meant offering of lighter fare for summer proves again that nothing is harder than comedy. And that live theater guarantees an outcome far less certain than the unveiling of the killer in any Agatha Christie.
Through July 31 at Goppert Theatre, Avila University, 73-109 E 118th St, Kansas City, MO 64145. kcactors.org