If Agatha Christie had known when she signed over the royalties from "The Mousetrap" to her nephew to help pay for his college education that the play still would be running in London a half-century later, she might have had second thoughts.
Then again, perhaps not. She loved the unexpected.
That love is obvious in all her work, especially in "Mousetrap," now playing at the Newport Theatre Arts Center, a play in which nothing is as it seems, and no one is who he or she appears to be.
Giles and Mollie Ralston have taken over a secluded estate and turned it into a "guest house." Their opening bodes well, with four paying guests arriving during a horrendous snowstorm, with prospects for cozy seclusion. They cover a range of types, from the flippant and campy Christopher Wren (not his real name) and the pushy, mannish Miss Casewell to the imperial Mrs. Boyle and the Colonel Blimpish Major Metcalfe. There is even a fifth guest, the decidedly exotic Mr. Paravicini, whose auto flipped into a snowdrift conveniently near the house.
In a program note, director Ken Rugg says he has approached the play as a "post-World War II period piece." How else would you approach it? The mood, the characters and even Christie's very idiosyncratic dialogue are of their time, and timeless. Even the BBC announcer's voice coming over the period radio on the desk is bland and slightly stiff-lipped as he relates the big news story of the day, concerning a murder in London that afternoon.
It's that murder around which the plot swirls. For those who have never seen the play, let it suffice to say that practically everyone involved has some connection with the killing. Even if you know the story, it's still fun to watch Christie peel away the layers of sham, one by one.
It's also fun watching Rugg's intelligent and craftsman-like treatment of Christie's period piece, respecting detail, shadings and tone in this sturdy and intriguing revival. His tempos are crisp, as they should be, and when he does use a pause, it means something and helps to unfold the action logically.
Rugg also has cast the revival well. Sophie Areno and Ian Downs look and sound like young English people of the time, particularly Downs, whose sometime reticence in the relationship with his bright wife, and slight bumbling, is typical of British writing at the time. Both give excellent performances.
The period feel is caught even more securely in some of the other characters. Tony Persia's Wren pushes the limits, but his subtle, seeming-guilty glances to one side as the plot thickens are handled with restraint. Jennifer Holland's mannish, and very effective, Miss Casewell also shines in its understatement, with a frequent hint of humor grinning through her starchy exterior.
The obnoxious and demanding ogre Mrs. Boyle is captured by Jane Nunn with a nice touch of resignation at her finding herself in this terrible guest house, and Steve McCammon's Major Metcalfe nicely veils his real purpose behind a slightly stodgy "old school tie" facade that is as misleading as it is charming.
Also typical of the period is the exotic mystery of Mitchell Nunn's sly and grinning Mr. Paravicini, well drawn in the best 1940s B-movie style. Very strong is the deception that cloaks the real purpose of police Sergeant Trotter, who has skied to the lodge on the trail of the murderer, and it gives Shawn Berry the opportunity to display some interesting sleight-of-hand in his characterization.
* "The Mousetrap," Newport Theatre Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Ends Oct. 11. $13. (949) 631-0288. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.
Sophie Areno: Mollie Ralston
Ian Downs: Giles Ralston
Tony Persia: Christopher Wren
Jane Nunn: Mrs. Boyle
Steve McCammon: Major Metcalfe
Jennifer Holland: Miss Casewell
Mitchell Nunn: Mr. Paravicini
Shawn Berry: Sergeant Trotter
A Newport Theatre Arts Center production of Agatha Christie's mystery. Produced by Rae Cohen. Directed by Ken Rugg. Scenic design: Chris Wuebben. Lighting design: John Nokes. Costume design: Tom Phillips. Dialect coach: Yvonne Robertson. Stage manager: Terri Collins.