The Mouse Trap, which began as a short radio piece in 1947, opened formally at The Theatre Royale in Nottingham in 1952. It’s been running continuously ever since racking up over 24,500 performances so far, holding the record for the longest running show (of any type) in modern day. Its crisp caricatures, dry humor and infinite plot twists made it a welcome choice for Noël and Company’s third production, the first in their new digs, guest of the eminent National Arts Club.
In keeping with tradition, the evening opened with era-compatible entertainment. Monday’s performer was the ever dapper Ronny Whyte, jazz pianist, vocalist and producer of Midtown Jazz at Midday at St. Peter’s in Manhattan (above, at the piano). In clear, resonant baritone with the easy swing of a seasoned professional, Whyte reminded us of a time when style was not an endangered noun. Audience members sat in the venerable second floor rooms, availing themselves of comfortable seating and the elegant bar while Whyte presented numbers by Jerome Kern, Noël Coward and the jaunty, rarely heard (these days) “London By Night” (Carroll Coates).
Opening, like a wink, with the radio news announcement of a London murder, The Mousetrap takes place at snowed in (of course) Monkswell Manor, newly converted into guest accommodations by a young married couple, Mollie (Jill Paice) and Giles Ralston (Keith Merrill). Guests include the stuffy, complaining, Mrs. Boyle (Carole Shelley), Major Metcalf (Merwyn Goldsmith), an ex-India based officer with can-do attitude and optimistic outlook, Miss Casewell, (Clodagh Bowyer), a somewhat dour Irish woman who has ostensibly come from Majorca on business, and Christopher Wren (Hunter Ryan Herdlicka), a young flamboyant, given his name in hopes he would follow suit and become an architect. Settling in is followed by the unexpected arrival of Mr. Paravicini (the smashing Paxton Whitehead) whose Rolls is stuck in the storm, followed by- surprise! A Detective Sergeant Trotter (Greg Jackson).
Apparently a note with two addresses has been discovered at the location of the London murder. The first was the scene of the crime, the second Monkswell Manor. Additional clues point to the deceased being only the first of three intended, revenge-motivated deaths associated with the neglect and death of a child on a neighboring farm many years ago. Each and every one of the guests is a prime subject. None are who they appear to be.
It’s not difficult to see why the play continues to hold audiences. It’s lively, fun, and a genuine puzzle. As with all Noël and Company productions thus far, the Christie is a book-held dramatization with stage directions read aloud from the sidelines to an audience grateful to have the chance to see a worthy, rarely performed (locally) piece.
Of the cast, the highlight is unquestionably Paxton Whitehead (Mr. Paravicini), whose every moment on stage is intriguing and engaging. With perfect Italian gusto and entitled upper class presence, Whitehead’s character delights in the life-or-death goings on as if they were merely a holiday pantomime mocking the foibles of humanity. Seemingly enjoying the hell out of the part, the actor twinkles wickedly, making the most of every bit of implication and misdirection placed in his capable hands. Though we never learn who he really is, Paravicini is truly brought to life.
Carole Shelley (Mrs. Boyle) playing a role she’s mastered dozens of times before, has fine moments of credible civil servant-like disparagement. Hunter Ryan Herdlicka (Christopher Wren) embodies the physical as well as emotional attributes of his character, throwing himself around like a balletic, gay voluptuary. Though a bit over the top, it’s enjoyable to watch and makes Christopher seem all the more mad, a suggestion the author clearly intends to plant.
Jill Paice (Mollie Ralston) comes into her own near the end in successive scenes with the detective and Christopher during which she appears more secure with her lines and can freely emote. Accent and personification of Mollie’s nervous personality are excellent, but up to that point, the actress appears to be on intermittently shifting ground.
Generally, the game company seems not to have had sufficient rehearsal to familiarize themselves with dialogue that should be delivered more smoothly.
Director Larry Fuller imbues the play with both good comic timing and effective overall pacing. Except for Christopher, he misses the opportunity to help define personalities with anything specific, leaving them onstage too much with neither business nor sufficient focus.
Noël and Company Presents
The Mouse Trap by Agatha Christie
Directed by Larry Fuller
With Carole Shelley, Paxton Whitehead, Jill Paice,
Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, Merwyn Goldsmith, Clodagh Bowyer,
Greg Jackson, Keith Mitchell
The National Arts Club
15 Gramercy Park South
Next: Noël Coward: The Women of his World
June 27 at Library for the Performing Arts
40 Lincoln Center Plaza
Cast: Emily Eden (Reader), Clodagh Bowyer (Ms. Casewell), Larry Fuller (Director), Paxton Whitehead (Mr. Paravicini), Merwin Goldsmith (Major Metcalf), Greg Jackson (Detective Sergeant Trotter), Carole Shelley (Mrs. Boyle), Hunter Ryan Herdlicka (Christopher Wren), Jill Paice (Mollie Ralston), Keith Merrill (Giles Ralston)