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Enduring murder-mystery tale buoys uneven Lancaster Opera House performance

First impressions are key to a good murder-mystery. The payoff might be in the whodunit’s big reveal – identifying the murderer in a room of perceivably ordinary, quirky people – but the fun is in the setup. In this game of wits, there’s no better referee than Agatha Christie.

There’s a reason Christie’s “The Mousetrap” is still playing on London’s West End, 67 years after its debut. It is the world’s longest-running theater production.

And not by chance. Meticulously prepared to divert your focus and disarm your expectations at every turn, it is the mold from which every worthy heir has been cast. You can’t watch Frederick Knott’s “Wait Until Dark,” Anthony Shaffer’s “Sleuth,” television’s great “Columbo,” or this season’s hit film “Knives Out” without inadvertently playing Christie’s game.

We see the hallmarks of Christie’s bulletproof writing in the Lancaster Opera House’s latest production, under the direction of Nathan Andrew Miller. The suspenseful music, the crackling of the 1950s-era radio, the dramatically lit parlor of Monkswell Manor, the countryside guest house in which this evening’s suspects are assembled. The stage is set.

The production offers an excited, passionate effort from the eight-member ensemble. It must be a treat to play such fabled archetypes, with charming (and devious) British accents, no less. 

Susan King is a whip as the hard-to-please Mrs. Boyle. King keeps great pace with Boyle’s constant, badgering criticisms. She is a rock of this group, as is Anne Roaldi Boucher as the intriguing, aloof Miss Casewell. It’s hard to not wonder what’s up with both of them.

On the other end of the suspicion spectrum, Jaimee Harmon paints a portrait of young-eyed bliss and naivete as newlywed Mollie Ralston, the young (and inexperienced) proprietress of the manor. Her husband Giles doesn’t offer much to the proceedings, but Jackson DiGiacomo holds his own. Together, they make a fine-seeming couple.

In a role once played by Richard Attenborough, Nathanial Higgins is a strong and steady, if strange, Detective Sergeant Trotter, though I wonder how a more charming Trotter would have played. (It’s hard to not envision Lt. Columbo in these scenes, forgive me.)

David C. Mitchell and Monish Bhattacharyya offer great comedic punches in their roles to the often tense dramatics. So does Matthew Rittler, in a more profound way. As Christopher Wren, a “peculiar” young man with “queer” sensibilities – read into this 1950s-set character sketch however you wish – Rittler is often humorous to good effect, but sometimes campy in ways Christie probably didn’t intend.

On average, the cast more or less succeeds, with a mixture of experience levels keeping things interesting. They do appear to be enjoying themselves, wanting to get their parts right, their cues in place. David Dwyer’s well-appointed set and Nicholas Quinn’s evocative lighting design are helpful in the presentation department, though the volume of Quinn’s sound design could be turned up a few notches.

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Problems arise with Miller’s direction, however, mostly in the first act. It takes a good long while for the cast to appear effortless and confident in their distinguishable personalities. This is key to how successfully the head-scratching second act plays out.

There’s a rigidity to how they move about the multi-level set, and in the way they listen and respond to each other, more often occupying the space than existing in it. With this, they’re suspicious for all the wrong reasons – before news of a murder is even announced.

Christie’s script is well annotated with stage markings, but still, the big lift here is in how masterfully you set the pieces in motion. This is the director’s role to define, shape and finesse. First impressions are never wrong. Thankfully, Christie’s story has a way of telling itself, even if the puzzle pieces aren’t quite fitting. 

THEATER REVIEW

"The Mousetrap"

3 stars (out of four)

Through Feb. 9 at Lancaster Opera House, 21 Central Ave., Lancaster. Performances at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $25-15. (683-1776, lancasteropera.com).

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