By Dale King
The Delray Beach Playhouse marks its 75th anniversary with the COVID-delayed opening of its 2021-22 season of mainstage productions, kicking off with A Spider’s Web, a delightfully wry and redoubtable Agatha Christie whodunit.
The DBP, on the east shore of Lake Ida, fully opens in January with the addition of Lunch Club Matinees and a schedule of Classic Rock Shows.
In the meantime, the main stage is alive and lively again, featuring Christie’s second most-popular murder mystery, finishing behind only The Mousetrap, which began its run at a West End theater in London in 1952 and has yet to bring down the show’s final curtain.
Written as a parody of the detective thriller genre, A Spider’s Web deftly blends suspense and humor. Tension and laughter compete for the audience’s attention as the show develops smoothly under the well-trained eye of veteran director Randolph DelLago.
A cast that works excellently together delivers Christie’s artistry smartly. Somewhat wordy and long (nearly two and a half hours, with a single intermission), the play does hit a few lulls, particularly in Act I. The second act is more convincing as the level of activity increases.
The Delray Playhouse has a knack for producing thrillers with depth and flair – and A Spider’s Web is no exception. The plot includes a murder, of course, set inside a stately home decorated with opulent furnishings that include a desk with at least one secret drawer and a wall with a hidden passageway. Hints of drug addiction and use of invisible ink on key documents also bubble up in the play’s conundrum-laced cauldron.
Most of Christie’s “clues” — and there are many — make themselves clear by the time the play concludes, despite the complexity of the unfolding action and some late-arriving information that helps pinpoint the culprit.
The drama opens at Copplestone Court, a massive home that Clarissa and Henry Hailsham-Brown (Marci Hall, Ken Vianale) are renting for a bargain-basement price. Three guests are staying with them: Sir Rowland Delahaye (Mark Liebert), a local justice of the peace; Hugo Birch (Neil Evangelista), an irascible middle-aged gent and a young man named Jeremy Warrender (Tom Gregory), whose only offense is a tendency to flirt.
Clarissa, her 12-year-old stepdaughter, Pippa (Marissa Shala), and others arrive to enlarge the on-stage ensemble. Despite her penchant for making mischief and a predilection for devising far-fetched stories, Clarissa is likeable, and the guests all seem comfortable mingling and enjoying each other’s company.
The arrival at Copplestone Court of Oliver Costello (Colin Elias), the boyfriend and drug supplier for Miranda Hailsham-Brown, Henry’s first wife, is unsettling. Clarissa is upset and surprised when she lays eyes on him — and his demand that Pippa should live with him and Miranda shocks those in the room, particularly the young girl herself.
Clarissa and the gardener, Mildred Peake (Missy McArdle) throw Costello out. But later in the evening, when the home is dark, a figure slips in through an apparently unlocked door, and the mystery is underfoot.
The season debut’s cast works well together, and the finale is truly a revelation. The return of Marci Hall to the Delray stage is a welcome touch. A performer in some 40 plays at DBP, she portrays Clarissa with elegance and charm, yet her devilish side comes through.
Evangelista, Gregory and Liebert are well-cast, and quickly find their niches, creating an enjoyable diversity among the visitors. Elgin, the butler portrayed by Tom Turner, slickly inserts himself into the action as he also becomes a suspect.
Two performers are particular standouts. Actor Michael Beecher’s appearance as Police Inspector Lord brings overtones of Inspector Hubbard’s interrogation in the film Dial M for Murder. He dominates the stage for much of the second act and handles the investigative role well.
And Missy McArdle is a blast as the outspoken gardener Mildred Peake, who minds everyone else’s business, but does so in a non-threatening comic-relief way. She has a booming voice and a broad stage demeanor that underscores her presence.
Marissa Shala adds a touch of youthful allure, with a hint of shyness, to her depiction of Pippa. Costello, who is only on stage a brief time, quickly establishes himself as someone not to be trusted.
Plaudits to the folks who created the scenery — scenic designer Ann Cadaret, scenic art and designer Cindi Taylor and master carpenter Jeff Davis, among others. They fleshed out an exquisite drawing room that truly befits a Christie mystery.
A Spider’s Web is being performed through Sunday at the Delray Beach Playhouse, 950 NW 9th St. (Lake Shore Drive), Delray Beach. Tickets may be purchased online at www.delraybeachplayhouse.com or by calling 561-272-1281.