As murder mysteries go, the Country Dinner Playhouse staging of Agatha Christie's The Hollow has much to recommend it. Bill McHale's well-directed show features a stellar cast of veteran actors. What's more, superb costumes from Nicole Hoof and a tasteful set by Craig Cline and Eric Lawrence create a feast for the visual senses. Audiences may have to adjust their ears to a slow and ponderous start, but once the action gets going, Christie's patented murder-mystery techniques hold us until the end.
Characters quickly enter and exit the stage at the play's beginning, providing information about themselves that holds our interest for the better part of the first act. By the first intermission, though, patrons begin to wonder aloud: Shouldn't someone have been killed by now? And though the audience's curiosity about criminal mischief is piqued during Act Two, the play drags on through another intermission until the moment in Act Three when the drama resolves itself.
Henrietta Angkatell (Rachel deBenedet) is a sculptor who lives with her many cousins outside London in the country house belonging to Sir Henry Angkatell (Gary Montgomery). Sir Henry's wife, Lady Angkatell (Deborah Persoff), is a dotty matron who swears her memory is perfect--except for her inability to recall specific dates, times, places and names. Also living in the house is Edward Angkatell (Kevin Hart), a bland and fawning bachelor who appears to harbor romantic feelings for his distant cousin Henrietta. The family butler, Gudgeon (Rick Wiles), and servile maid, Doris (Patty Durel), make up the remainder of the eccentric household.
As the play begins, several travelers from London pay a weekend visit to the Angkatells' bastion of bucolic bliss. Midge Harvey (Erin Prestia) is a vibrant young woman who is secretly in love with Edward. John Christow, M.D. (Marcus Waterman), however, claims no such feelings for Henrietta, though the two share an intimate relationship, to the consternation of Christow's wife, Gerda (Jan Waterman). Complicating matters further, a nosy neighbor, film star Veronica Craye (Laura Ryan), seizes upon the occasion of Dr. Christow's visit to rekindle their long-dormant romance. In due (more like overdue) time, Dr. Christow wanders outside to the patio, where he's felled by a single gunshot. As he gazes into the eyes of his mistress Henrietta, he whispers her name and dies. Gerda sobs and cries, revolver in hand. And therein lies the mystery.
The remainder of the evening's entertainment features Inspector Colquhoun (Duane Black) and his assistant, Detective Sergeant Penny (Brad Ramsey), who interrogate several members of the household in an attempt to solve the murder. In a clear case of Christie's fiction outwitting present-day reality, the two Scotland Yard stalwarts solve the murder despite the problems presented by a contaminated crime scene and uncooperative witnesses. Relying only on their hunches and a few clues, the two super-sleuths close in on their suspect and attempt to force a confession. To the accompaniment of lightning flashes and thunderclaps reminiscent of television's Dark Shadows, justice is done to the murderer in an appropriate but unexpected manner.
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Comedy mysteries typically succeed or fail based on the audience's ability to follow the many plot twists and turns inherent in such plays. If the onstage action confuses the audience, spectators lose interest and the play subsequently fails. To McHale's and the actors' credit, this production manages to engage our interest from start to finish.
As Henrietta, the naturally gifted deBenedet leads the company with a scintillating performance. Exuding a similar ease and grace as a woman of considerably lesser means, Prestia delivers a performance that is perhaps her best work locally. Not to be outdone, Ryan is delightful as the over-the-top diva who lives her life as if Panaflex movie cameras were capturing her every word and gesture. And Montgomery, Persoff and both Watermans shine in supporting performances that do much to sustain the play in its bleakest moments.
All of which makes a first-rate production out of a third-rate play--which is, all things considered, better than the other way around.
The Hollow, through February 15 at the Country Dinner Playhouse, 6875 South Clinton Street, Englewood, 799-1410.