PROVO — Agatha Christie’s classic murder-mystery hits the Covey stage, and to resoundingly great effect. The action begins in the midst of a foggy night, when stranger Michael Starkwedder stumbles into a manor home and finds the body of Richard Warwick. Intrigue abounds as the wife of the deceased, Laura Warwick, takes stalwart blame for the murder; she seems innocent—or is she? Starkwedder, apparently compelled by Laura’s beauty, helps to re-enact the murder and lay a trail of false clues to lead the police astray. Using the deceased’s backstory, Mr. Warwick’s aggressive tendencies played upon in order to frame an enemy of the dead man’s past. As the other inhabitants of the house wake up, it becomes apparent that Mrs. Warwick is not the only occupant with reason to kill, though the false trail is already laid. MacGregor stands to suffer the brunt of blame for Richard Warwick’s death. Suspicion, affairs, macabre fascinations all unravel as the facts surrounding Richard Warwick’s life become clearer, culminating in a final surprising twist.
Technical elements of this production provide a suspenseful set-up for Christie’s Whodunnit. Lighting (by Daniel James) created a foreboding sense of things to come, aiding in the melodramatic feel to the play. James’s set design proved a strength of the performance, the foundation for action laid within the little Welsh village and reflected in the Warwick homestead’s interior. I appreciated the intricate details laid into the set, various animal furs and tokens of Richard Warwick’s hunting experience reflected in the décor. Costumes (by Pam Davis) afforded for a decadent venture into character personality, each managing to reflect a period-appropriateness while adding texture and depth to the visual collective. Blocking did not seem to favor any one side in particular, and I appreciated that I was always able to see (and hear) critical moments on the stage. My only criticism of technical work stems from the use of certain sound cues—the telephone ringing and gunshots in particular, that don’t seem to belong to the grounded reality as the acting. The sounds felt more caricatured and theatrical compared to the other, more genuine elements. (Likewise, it was a little distracting that the cigarettes used did not “smoke,” another venture from this realistic world of play.) However, the overall cohesiveness of technical elements were shining nuances on the stage.
Despite lengthy exposition, I appreciated the actors’ collective ability to keep a brisk pace. Moreover, I was able to easily understand the dialogue—critical to unraveling the nuances of this particular murder mystery. Though the first act might have easily dragged, I was grateful for the crisp tempo that director Barta Heiner created that propelled the story through the remnant acts. Adam Argyle as Michael Starkwedder shouldered a brunt of pushing the story along, and delivered his performance with a charming ease. The character shines, and the idiosyncrasies of Starkwedder adapted into Argyle’s demeanor and made the character seem at home in this world of abounding intrigue. Argyle’s strong presence and connection with his cast members made him a stand-out of the evening. Mallory Gee as Laura Warwick brought an interesting blend of fragility and gumption to her portrayal, and I enjoyed seeing the subtleties in her performance. She held her own on the stage and, though subdued, brought a resonant presence all the same. There was a lovely subtle characterization that made Mrs. Warwick (played by Laura Wardle) delightful to watch—I was particularly fond of the grace she exhibited when sitting down, and oh-so in character. Casey William Walker (as Henry Angell) was particularly slimy and swindling without being overbearingly villainous and had a delightful magnetism on stage notably during his blackmail scenes). Finally, I liked the energy that Tanner Frost brought to the character of Jan Warwick; his descent into a mental spiral absolutely heightening the stakes of the play, particularly in later scenes. In general, I was pleased with the cohesive energy of the cast. There was a tightness in delivery and collective melodrama that I thought worked to delightful effect.
Overall? The Unexpected Guest provided an entertaining of theater. A tangible energy draws the audience into the world of the mystery and kept me guessing as to the identity of the murderer. A plethora of red herrings, cleverly delivered, and crisp pacing kept the momentum building, leading to a surprise twist ending. I would have liked a stronger moment-after, a longer pause to indulge in the revelation before the play’s black-out, but it was still a lovely evening of theater. Melodramatic twists and turns culminated in a charming thriller, perfectly representative of Agatha Christie’s usual writing. And with Halloween around the corner, what better way to prep than an evening with The Unexpected Guest?