Nobody connected with the Carnegie Arts Center/New Edgecliff Theater co-production of the Agatha Christie thriller The Mousetrap seems to realize that the real play resides in a tidal wash of simmering, threatening subtext under the polite, placid, even boring dialogue.
It's subtext that makes this the theater's most successful thriller ever. The original production opened in London in 1952 and is still running strong, more than 23,000 performances later.
Each of the eight characters, as written, has history, some of it violent. The characters have secrets — some shocking, some dangerous and some utterly mundane. Each character hides turmoil behind a workaday mask, be it a mask of civility or one of brusque temper.
Audience members shouldn't know exactly what hides behind each facade but should be aware of haunting shadows. Clever misdirection will lead you to suspect something opposite to the truth.
Six guests, two unexpected, and a host couple find themselves snowbound in a country house hotel. One person is murdered on stage. An alarming back story emerges piecemeal — about a diabolical farm wife, some abused kids, a military deserter, miscarried justice and threats of revenge. To ice the cake, the radio reports a murdering psychopath on the loose. It could be any of them.
That's Christie's mastery of thriller genre. She interconnects eight people with subtext. Each is just mysterious enough to be acceptable as guilty when the denouement plays out. Likewise, each is sufficiently likeable to be embraced as innocent when she or he is so proved and sufficiently evil enough not to be mourned if killed.
In well-managed productions, hints of emotional undertow are subtly communicated from the get-go, building suspense, raising suspicion and enriching character. When revelations begin at the end of Act One, the subtext can emerge smoothly and believably — a confirmation of things presaged, things suspected and even feared. When, at the plot's climax, the murderer is suddenly unmasked, the revelation will first startle you and then seem inevitable.
Precious little subtext sharpens this production as staged by NET Artistic Director Greg Procaccino. Six of the characters are pure surface, played for the obvious, literal content of their speeches. When their secrets emerge they seem arbitrary, tacked on and false. One actor's distressing performance distorts and cheapens the role into a look-at-me lampoon that disturbs the balance of scenes in which the character appears. Another actor parades the subtext, exuding mystery so broadly that the character clearly can't be the villain.
Tension should simmer under each moment of The Mousetrap. It doesn't, for all that Procaccino has set a crisp enough pace and, except in one case, has not allowed the adopted English accents to impede communication.
Why do lights blaze at high noon levels instead of suggesting an English winter afternoon when night falls by 4 p.m.? Why are the wall sconces never turned on, even when thick drapes cloak the single window on the amateurish set? And, since no dialogue reference is made to smoking, why in hell have a bunch of obvious non-smokers light cigarettes, then look totally artificial as they play at puffing?
The Carnegie Arts Center is new at producing theater. It might get the hang of it.
New Edgecliff, however, is long experienced. There's a significant quality disconnect between this not-even-community theater level production and such memorable NET successes as Lives of the Saints, American Buffalo and the recent Glengarry Glen Ross.
THE MOUSETRAP continues a The Carnegie in Covington through Aug. 31. Get showtime and ticket information and find nearby bars and restaurants here.