As a law student, I looked forward with something like dread to the mandatory trusts-and-estates course, which I pictured as being dry as dust. Was I ever wrong! An adventure in legal theory it may not have been, but the casebook was a cornucopia of stories about the endless varieties of human greed, as relatives and friends grasped for the assets of the deceased. Such is the ghoulish delight of stories like A Murder Is Announced, now playing at Way Off Broadway Dinner Theatre in Frederick, Maryland.
An adaptation by Leslie Darbon of a 1950 Agatha Christie novel, the story takes place at the home of Lettia Blacklock (Jessica Billones) in the little English village of Chipping Cleghorn. The local paper has published an advert promising a murder at 6:30 p.m. on Friday the 13th. At the appointed time, the lights go out, and three shots ring out. One kills an intruder; the other two narrowly miss Lettia.
Inspector Craddock of the local constabulary (Brian D. Kaider) is on the case, and per Christie tradition has a houseful of suspects to interrogate. In addition to Lettia, who is at the center of the household, these include the enthusiastic young Patrick and Julia Simmons (Randy Stull and Megan Elizabeth West), apparent siblings who have stayed at the house for some months; Phillipa Haymes (Laura Hepp Saunders), a young apparent widow; and villagers Edward Swettenham and his mother (Joey Leavitt in Saturday’s performance and Pam Neely).
Rounding out the cast are Dora “Bunny” Buner (Betsey Whitmore Brannen), a rather dotty, muddled soul, and Mitzy (Amy Cajigas), an abrupt maid with a suspicious foreign accent and undoubted skill at lying.
And, oh yes, Miss Marple (Hannah Pecoraro), who noses her way into and out of the house unannounced as if that were a completely normal feature of village life and police investigations. (Disclosure: while Margaret Rutherford was never the Miss Marple truest to Christie’s concept, I have the devil’s own time getting the picture of that film actor out of my head. Pecoraro’s take is a bit more on the order of Angela Lansbury’s 1980 portrayal.) Miss Marple observes and asks occasional questions, but through the first five scenes of the play is something of a background presence, while Inspector Craddock — I found Kaider’s performance in the role to be the evening’s strongest — very competently runs the inquiry.
“Competence” is the best word for the entire production, in fact. All the actors are on point for their characters, their accents are credible, and director/lighting and set designer/theater owner Justin M. Kiska keeps the pace running smartly. His set is a well-appointed, comfortable drawing room in a prosperous village house, with doors that serve the plot effectively (only two; this is a mystery after all, not a farce). It fits neatly into the modest dimensions of Way Off Broadway’s stage.
As one expects with Christie, the plot is convoluted (not to say contrived), most all the characters have motives, and there are enough red herrings to fill a decent-sized aquarium. When, in the final scene, Miss Marple delivers a lengthy expository monologue explaining whodunit and why, as well as untangling the mare’s nest of hidden family connections involved, all becomes as clear as can be rightfully expected. It’s not giving too much away to mention that expectations around an inheritance figure prominently in the shenanigans.
I’ve sometimes mused about the continuing popularity of Christie’s stories. Part of the lure is simply solving the puzzle, to be sure. In the men’s room during the interval, I heard a spirited discussion about the likely identity of the murderer. But I think there’s a subtler element as well. Chipping Cleghorn is a place safely in the imagined past. Everybody knows everybody. All the people — even murderers — are polite. Give or take the occasional foreigner in a service position, everybody shares a common culture. Things — even the fairly decorous murders — happen for understandable reasons, and rationality will tidy up the mess. The innocent are vindicated and the guilty are punished. It takes a village to solve a crime and restore the moral order, which is not only entertaining, but reassuring.
A Murder Is Announced plays through March 2, 2024, at the Way Off Broadway Theatre, 5 Willowdale Drive, Frederick, MD. Tickets, including a buffet dinner, are priced at $56–$61 ($49–$55 for children 6–12) and are available only through Way Off Broadway’s box office at 301-660-6600. The theater does not sell tickets online.
A Murder Is Announced
Written by Leslie Darbon
Adapted from the novel by Agatha Christie
Directed by Justin M. Kiska