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STAGE REVIEWS : Trail of Christie Clues From Woodland Hills to Beverly Hills

June 29, 1989|RAY LOYND

Agatha Christie fans are in clover. Two of her classic mysteries from the 1950s are running simultaneously. Both are set in characteristic isolated manors, and both are faithfully produced. But one show enjoys a richer bouquet. The clues are barely discernible. This is a case for the village constable.

One, "The Mousetrap" at the Richard Basehart Playhouse in Woodland Hills, opened in London when Harry S. Truman was President, and it's been running there nonstop ever since.

The other, "The Unexpected Guest" at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills, is not so cherished or well known, but flawless acting and pristine direction turn it into an unexpected treat.

Both productions underscore the English obsession with murder stories and are pleasant to the ear with uniformly strong and natural British accents. Both are similarly plotted arabesques of deception, where every character is a suspect, full of loyalties and betrayals alike.

So what's the difference between the shows? Aerodynamics. Everything sails with "The Unexpected Guest." "Mousetrap" at the well-appointed, year-old Basehart Playhouse is a finely crafted antique, rather like a respectful tintype. "The Unexpected Guest" at Theater 40 is tangier, even sublime.

"Guest," closing this weekend after a six-week run, is distinguished by flawless casting, moody set and lighting design, and ensemble muscle. The opening moments are classic Christie: a fog-shrouded night on the coast of England, an intruder stumbling into a farmhouse, a body slumped in a wheelchair, a woman holding a gun. Director Bruce Gray's momentum never lets up.

Typical for a Christie thriller, several particularly vibrant denizens share center stage: Suzanne Goddard's ambiguous widow, Webster Williams' entitled intruder, Chip Heller's boisterous, retarded son, and, in the show's most imaginative portrayal, Emile Hamaty's unctuous, blackmailing valet.

The production of "Mousetrap" (1952) is also fun but less pungent and less brisk.

The highlight is John David Carson's strong performance as a sergeant investigating nefarious events at Monkswell Manor. Director Bob McDavid's deliberate pacing is a shade cautious, leaving little clue as to why the play is the Western world's longest-running drama, apparently irresistible to London natives and tourists alike in its 37th West End year.

Like "The Unexpected Guest" (1958), "The Mousetrap" is staged with straightforward urgency and flavorful and vital performances by Evelyn Kingsley and especially the attractively brittle Kristin Reeves as guests of the inn.

Some of the characters, though, are not as eccentric nor as vaguely sinister as they should be. This is a good production, but it does not twist about in your imagination like "The Unexpected Guest."

Perhaps the biggest mystery about both these plays is why they have received such scant local attention. There have been a few campus and Orange County productions, but the current editions appear to be the first professional stagings in the Los Angeles area.

"The Mousetrap" plays at 21028 Victory Blvd. in Woodland Hills, Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 5 p.m., indefinitely. Tickets: $11-$15; (818) 704-1845.

"The Unexpected Guest" plays at 241 Moreno Dr., Beverly Hills, Thursday through Saturday, 8 p.m., Sunday, 2 and 8 p.m., closing Sunday. Tickets: $12-$15; (213) 225-1485.

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