July 19, 2017

Princeton Summer Theater Spins a “Spider’s Web”; Agatha Christie Mystery Is Revived at Hamilton Murray Theater

“SPIDER’S WEB”: Performances are underway for Princeton Summer Theater’s production of “Spider’s Web.” Directed by C. Luke Soucy, the play runs through July 23 at Princeton University’s Hamilton Murray Theater. From left: Jeremy (Peter Giovine), Hugo (Pablo Milla), Sir Rowland (Christopher Damen, seated), Clarissa (Abby Melick), and Miss Peake (Alex Yogelsang) examine a mysterious piece of paper. (Photo by Michelle Navis)

Princeton Summer Theater is presenting Spider’s Web at Princeton University’s Hamilton Murray Theater. Audiences will find much to enjoy in this polished production of Agatha Christie’s comic mystery, which — like Murder on the Orient Express — artfully undercuts thrilling suspense with lively characterization and witty dialogue.

According to Princeton Summer Theater’s website, Spider’s Web was chosen to be part of a season that aims to “reflect the challenges posed to us today by a society that is divided over whether it is better to look to the past for inspiration or to move in the direction of future progress. The characters in each play demonstrate vastly different ways of dealing with their individual histories, and are made stronger by facing this adversity.”

In his program notes, director C. Luke Soucy — who is the artistic director for Princeton Summer Theater — observes that Ms. Christie’s “world is one in which disorder is always temporary, crime is always punished, and truth will always out.” One immediately notices the orderly, symmetrical set by Joseph Haggerty. At the center of the elaborately decorated drawing room is a desk whose contents are crucial to the plot, as well as a set of books that probably has fed the vivid imagination of Clarissa Hailsham-Brown, the central character and — with her husband Henry and stepdaughter Pippa — residents of Copplestone Court.

Glasses of port also are visible. Briefly, the audience may wonder if they have been mixed with poison — but they have not. The Hailsham-Browns have guests: Sir Rowland Delahaye, Hugo Birch, and Jeremy Warrender. The three men are participating in a contest to identify which wines they are drinking. Copplestone Court also is inhabited by two servants, Elgin and Miss Peake.

Jeremy surreptitiously searches the desk once he is alone in the room. Pippa returns, carrying a book she describes as a “recipe book,” although it oddly mentions candles. When Jeremy asks if she likes Copplestone Court, Pippa excitedly shows him a hidden door that leads to a small recess.

Clarissa is visited by an unwanted guest: Oliver Costello, who tells her that Miranda, Henry’s ex-wife, wants Pippa to live with her and Costello. Oliver, like Jeremy, is interested in the contents of the desk. Pippa enters and is horrified to see Costello, whom Clarissa and Miss Peake remove from the house. Later, after having left the room, Clarissa returns and discovers the body of Costello. Pippa enters through the hidden recess and hysterically blurts out that she is responsible.

To protect Pippa, Clarissa and her guests hide Costello’s body, then set up a fake bridge game. Responding to an anonymous tip, Inspector Lord arrives to investigate the murder. When the police find documents proving Costello’s identity, Clarissa has to admit that he visited the house. Miss Peake is questioned and reveals the hidden recess, unaware of Clarissa’s plan. Clarissa is forced to open the recess, revealing Costello’s body.

After Lord questions Clarissa and the other occupants of Copplestone Court, he opens the recess door and is shocked to discover that the body has gone. Pippa enters and reveals that her “recipe” book was a book about witchcraft; she confessed to killing Costello because she thought her “spells” had caused his death. Therein lies another likely reason that Spider’s Web was chosen: Princeton Summer Theater’s next production, The Crucible, also deals with witchcraft.

After Pippa’s revelation, three mysteries remain. Who killed Costello? Who moved the body? Finally, who called the police?

In the 1950s Agatha Christie was in demand as a playwright, having had The Hollow, The Mousetrap, and Witness for the Prosecution open within three years of each other. Spider’s Web was written at the request of Margaret Lockwood, who originated the role of Clarissa in 1954. In a reversal of the usual order, Spider’s Web was adapted into a novel by Charles Osborne in 2000.

Sir Rowland, Hugo, and Henry exhibit a gruff reserve typical of British gentlemen one expects in a drawing-room mystery. Similarly, Oliver is a stock villain. Nevertheless, Christie’s dialogue sparkles: “Supposing I were to come down one morning and find a dead body in the library; what should I do?” Clarissa blithely muses, before facing that exact problem. In Clarissa, Ms. Christie has created a buoyant character whose exploits keep the audience enthralled.

Abby Melick offers the tour de force performance required by the role of Clarissa. She portrays the vivacious character’s love of imagination, and her panicked but quick-witted response when that imagination trips her up, with equal flair.

Christopher Damen gives a solid performance as the gruff but sincere Sir Rowland. Meagan Raker, last seen as Cinderella in Into the Woods, is entertaining as Pippa.

In this production, two actors are given dual roles. The first is Pablo Milla; he brings an oily menace to Oliver, and a dry pomposity to Hugo.

The other dual role is filled by Ross Barron, who infuses Henry with a smooth sincerity. Unlike Murder on the Orient Express, Spider’s Web does not make its detective into a central character. However, Mr. Barron ensures that Inspector Lord is distinctive, giving him the probing sternness that keeps the inhabitants of Copplestone Court on edge. Alex Vogelsang as Miss Peake; Peter Giovine as Jeremy; and Lydia Watt as Elgin round out the cast.

Clearly, these emerging actors (most are recent Princeton University graduates, or will graduate next year) are enjoying their roles. They have good chemistry, and their performances make the characters distinctive and engaging. However, consistent attention needs to be paid to diction and projection; some of the dialogue was difficult to hear.

Like the set, Julia Peiperl’s costumes elegantly evoke the period. Most of them share a color palette with the luxurious but dark set. Clarissa’s dress, however, is an airy light blue. For the villainous Oliver, Ms. Peiperl underlines the melodramatic aspect of his character, giving him a bright red smoking jacket.

Mr. Soucy’s direction makes effective use of the space afforded by Mr. Haggerty’s set. The interrogation sequences are staged with precision, as the blocking offers clues as to the murderer’s identity.

The members of this cast and creative team are at the start of their promising careers, and they are to be commended for reviving a lesser-known play that fits the theater’s stated mission. Clarissa’s history of spinning tales causes her to face adversity, but she does indeed grow as a character — captivating the audience along the way.

“Spider’s Web” will play at the Hamilton Murray Theater in Murray Dodge Hall, Princeton University, through July 23. For tickets, show times, and information call (732) 997-0205 or visit www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2933095.