The Theatre Guild of Webster Groves has a season this year almost entirely of plays that are the source of a movie or are taken from a movie from the 1950s, mostly the lighter movies, not the great ones.
But now we have a welcome break in the series. Barbara Mulligan, president of the Guild and director of this production, found this murder mystery with more twists and turns than even Agatha Christie could imagine. In fact, it does not even have — but I must be careful with this one, so twisted is it that almost anything I say about it could be a spoiler, right down to the high school yearbook and wooden shipping crate at the final curtain.
Stranger in the Attic is set in a small vacation town. Brian, a successful writer of true crime stories, is having a seemingly nonchalant chat with his second wife, Dana. In between pouring herself cocktails, Dana explodes at the thought of her husband’s latest mystery story being based on the unexplained disappearance of his first wife many years ago. Brian never recovered from this strange turn of events. The woman simply evaporated; Brian was left stunned and saddened.
Soon it’s time to meet the new next-door neighbors, a famously successful criminal defense lawyer named Douglas and his emotionally abused wife, Margaret. Douglas and his wife are either vacationing or Douglas is working on a case, depending on who’s doing the talking. The conversation between them grows more convoluted, to the point where Brian and Dana wonder what is really going on next door.
Before they have time to resolve their anxieties, Brian gets an unwelcome visit from a man named Kendrick. He’s there to proposition Brian about combining their efforts on a book. Brian can do the writing; Kendrick promises to execute the murder, right in front of Brian in the living room of his own home. His victim will be Douglas, who supposedly defended a murderer that got off on a technicality. Once released, the murderer went on to kill Kendrick’s wife. For that reason, Kendrick has been plotting to kill Douglas ever since. Horrified at hearing Kendrick’s story, Brian manages to extricate Kendrick from his home before he becomes an accomplice to a murder.
After Brian brings wife Dana up to speed on his talk with Kendrick, she is distressed that he isn’t planning to call the cops – at least, not yet. Oddly, Dana takes the time to hire a house painter to freshen up their place.
Before long, clever playwright John Kaasik has the characters changing places in the scheme, which turns into multiple schemes, and one character even changes his identity. Stranger in the Attic is not great drama, though it does pose a significant ethical question for Brian, treated lightly. But it does spin excellent suspense in its uncertainties and its brain teasers, making it fine entertainment.
And the Theatre Guild makes the most of what the script offers. Mark Moebeck has constructed perhaps the Guild’s most sophisticated set for Brian’s living room, decorated with tall potted plants. Nathan Olvey provides unobtrusively helpful lights and sound. Director Barbara Mulligan and Assistant Director Debbie also function as Stage Managers.
The cast, under Mulligan’s direction, play it perfectly straight, not missing the occasional humorous moments. Bradley Seyer takes writer Brian through the extremes from delighted anticipation of another best seller to the hopeless terror of the trap he has fallen into. Abigail Brisbane, as his wife Dana, manages to contact the police without arousing her husband’s suspicion. Mathew Lindquist’s Kendrick the killer hides a hint of evil under his pleasant, businesslike manner. Hal Morgan’s famous lawyer, ever superior to the others, utters every sentence as if addressing a jury. Tammy O’Donnell as his wife simply endures him. Jonathan Garland succeeds in being a blank slate as the painter Brian suspects of having an affair with his wife; playwright Kaasik constantly finds new ways to twist the knife in Brian. Garland gets to do more later.
And what do you think is in that wooden shipping crate?
Photo by Robert Steven