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Christie Stage Mystery

September 30, 1993|RAY LOYND | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SIERRA MADRE — When you think of popular Agatha Christie whodunits adapted for the theater, your mind is likely to romp over such titles as "Ten Little Indians," "Witness for the Prosecution" and "Mousetrap," among others.

But "A Murder Is Announced," a Christie novel on stage at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, is certainly not in that illustrious league.

Maybe that's because Christie herself didn't adapt the mystery for the stage. (Someone named Leslie Darbon did.) But more than likely, it's because Christie's plot is so talky and so expository that it simply doesn't work as a play. Believe it or not, some Christie stories are better left on the printed page. This is one of them.

So it's with bountiful surprise that director Frank Patano, his technical staff and 11-member cast have managed to deliver such an entertaining production in Sierra Madre. They literally outshine the plodding material.

The period is "Christie time." Judging by the clothes (a flavorful, ambitious fashion statement by costume designer Zale Morris) that time is the 1940s.

And judging by the warm interior (designed by David Calhoun and the Playhouse's most evocative set seen in recent memory) the physical look is certifiably Christie-esque--a drawing room at Little Paddocks Estate in Chipping Cleghorn. How Christie can you get?

It is there that the mistress of the manor (the earnest Trish Elliott) struggles to ward off anxiety attacks among a brood of visiting relatives and nosy neighbors over the curious placement of a disturbing village newspaper ad which announces that a murder will be committed in her home this very evening!

Suddenly the stage lights go out, shots are fired and lights go up on a cadaver sprawled at center stage. Unraveling all the mystery and confusion is Christie's ever inquisitive, reliable and beloved Miss Marple (the thin, sharply opinionated Denice Stradling in a wonderful against-the-grain-typecasting made popular by Margaret Rutherford).

The thickets of the plot are almost incomprehensible, parlayed through explanation and exposition rather than physical action. The staging is occasionally so frozen that your eye tends to follow characters as they slowly shift from one chair and couch to the other until they've used up all the furniture on the stage.

But what salvages the show is the range and texture of the performances and the cozy, distinctive denizens the actors depict. Among them--the corpulent, brash, well-padded Mary Bogue and meek Wayne Barks as a co-dependent mother and son, the suave, foppish Felix Zentner and gleaming Karen Callen as secret lovers, the frightened, frail Claudia Askew, the worldly Stephanie De Yo with her great strapped black high heels and perfect '40s coiffure and, not least, Jim Bullock's efficient, probing police inspector.

The only misguided performance is the rude presence of Angie Mignone's hyper East European housekeeper. Director Patano either encourages or allows her to get away with far too many cheap laughs and over-the-top, hammy theatrics.

But, happily, this disharmony is only a blemish in an otherwise colorfully cast and designed show.

"A Murder Is Announced"

Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre

When: Friday, Saturday, 8 p.m., Sunday matinees, Oct. 10, 17, 2:30 p.m. Ends Oct. 23.

Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

Information: (818) 355-4318

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