Plano — Any man romancing three women at once is already running a harrowing risk. In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, at least half the guests and staff gathered at an English country house for the weekend would like to get their hands on this philandering physician, to love him or kill him or maybe both.
In the 1951 play, adapted by Christie from her 1946 novel, she cuts out her famed creation, Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, and brings in a bloke from Scotland Yard to solve the crime. The question in this entertaining whodunit, directed with wry wit by Sue Birch at Theatre Britain, is how a cad like Dr. John Cristow (Andrew Kasten) has survived until the first intermission.
The fate of the deserving victim is pretty clear from the time he grabs his first surreptitious feel of a woman other than his wife. Kasten’s ill-fated, easy-to-loathe doctor walks like a bully and delivers his lines with curt arrogance.
Figuring out who murdered him and why is much more intriguing, particularly when the suspects are a manor full of eccentric English aristocrats down from London to eat, shoot and possibly get in bed with each other.
Leading off the list is the hostess of The Hollow, half-daft Lady Lucy Angkatell, played with delicious dottiness by Cindy Beall. While trysts take place and knowing looks are exchanged, Lady A sweeps through with a huge lobster in hand, finally recalling she brought it in to be sure a sofa pillow was that exact shade.
A dead body in Darryl P. Clement’s elegant, airy garden room is off-putting for Beall’s quirky Ladyship, certainly, but her main concern is that the lunch duck won’t be served on time. “Murder does upset the servants so,” she says, rolling her eyes and brushing aside less pressing questions about methods and motives.
In another typically Brit twist, nearly all the guests are cousins of some degree or other, fueling the notion that families cover up for each other, but are also passionately enamored of or viciously jealous of one another. Small gene pools breed not only bizarre fetishes, like Lady Lucy’s egg-gathering ritual, but suddenly revealing ancestral connections to stoke a murder mystery to the manor born.
Virtually all the dozen characters had reason enough to murder John Cristow, and everybody can get his hands on a gun since Lord Angkatell (charming, clubby Stan Kelly) collects firearms and has converted an old bowling alley to a shooting range, where guests take a shot after cocktails. As one laughing marksman says to another guest, “It’s easy! You just close your eyes and point, and the bullet goes somewhere.” Indeed.
When Scotland Yard’s Inspector Colquhoun (a tall, forthright Byron Holder) is called in to determine everybody’s motives and alibis, Lady Lucy is excited. “This is my first murder,” she exclaims, clasping her hands and eager for questions. The inspector’s stout star-struck assistant (a comically distracted Matt Stepan) scribbles clues and tries to look analytical as they go through the ladies first.
Cristow’s apparently adoring and put-upon wife Gerda, played by Elizabeth McWhorter with a dazed helplessness, surely suspected her husband’s fidelity. Then there’s his mistress, the beautiful and famous sculptor Henrietta Angkatell, embodied by a dark-eyed and emotionally torn Sky Williams. A former lover, the movie star Veronica Craye, portrayed with bitchy glamour by Natalie Johnson, has shown up to rekindle the affair. Cousin Midge (perky Marilyn Setu), another second or third cousin, works in a shop but gets invited for special days. Is grateful Midge secretly jealous?
Cousin Edward (a painfully earnest Joel Frapart), heir to the ancestral home, adores dismissive Henrietta, creating at least one tense romantic triangle. Of course, there’s the ever-present butler Gudgeon, played with high-handed efficiency by Walt Threlkeld, and the blabbermouth working class maid, a furiously funny Caitlin Duree.
The show runs almost three hours, including two 10-minute intermissions, but all the machinations and alibis of these characters are at least as entertaining as waiting for the final confessions, revelations and departures. English accents hold up, all the women look period-perfect in Shanna Gobin’s ’50s outfits, and all you need is a dry sherry to top off your slice of Dame Christie pie, always admirably served up at Theatre Britain.