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Memphis Flyer The Art of Recycling

By Hadley Hury

FEBRUARY 2, 1998:  Agatha Christie has never been accused of hatching well-dramatized plots or subtle, complex characters. Her who-dunnits saunter along in a sort of prosaic distraction until, suddenly and arbitrarily, they come to a halt when all is explained in the final scene, either by some local chief inspector or by one of her serial favorites, the redoubtable Jane Marple or the shrewd and vainglorious Hercule Poirot. Her stereotypical characters announce their proclivities early and often.

For these reasons she is, of course, one of the world’s most widely read authors. Even among mystery lovers whose voracious appetites have been weaned on the far more sophisticated novels of P.D. James and Ruth Rendell, there will always be a fond place in the heart for dear Aunt Agatha. And it’s not a matter of condescension: Christie’s works are a perfect formula, the comfort food of murder mysteries. We don’t read them to be shocked, or even to confront the unexpected; to register the vertiginous anomie of contemporary urban life; to taste the acrid sensations of real crime. The grit and brutality are distanced, the surroundings (often, tasteful hotels and English country houses) are cozy, and the characters move with a familiarity, a fatedness that unfolds comfortably, reassuringly, like an inexorable board game.

Dramatizations of Agatha Christie, whether for stage, film, or television, absolutely demand a superior cast. Her rogues’ gallery offers little latitude for interpretation; audiences take their delight in observing just what degrees of perfection a fine actor can achieve, what subtle variations can be gotten away with.

The current Playhouse on the Square production of The Hollow, directed by Ken Zimmerman, offers several good performances and a terrific set design by Frank Foster. The Hollow is vintage (late ’40s or early ’50s, by the look of Karen Murk’s costumes) Christie: a murder among the aristocracy at a country house, dotty dowagers, ingenues, sophisticates, sherry, martinis, and lots and lots of cigarettes. The events transpire over a weekend, and this is the play’s weakness; at well over two hours, the weekend feels as if it were happening in real time. We have too much time to consider too little drama. (We can’t put it face-down on an ottoman, take a break, and then come back for another mosey.)

Keeping us interested: Ann Marie Hall, very funny (and sporting Barbara Cartland hair) as the vague but weirdly insightful Lady Angkatell; Kevin Jones as a suave Inspector Colquhoun; Dave Landis as unflappable Sir Henry; Tracy Liz Miller as the mousy Gerda; Jason Craig as a jaded physician; Jenny Odle as the straightforward yet enigmatic Henrietta; Amanda Kay Berg as fresh-faced Midge; Nathan M. White as frustrated young Edward; Michael Paul Duggan, Carrie Rosson, Lise Desjardins, and Denis Riva Jr.

London Suite, Neil Simon’s latest (and we may assume, or at least hope, last) “hotel play” is now on view at Theatre Memphis. The production – ably directed by Bennett Wood and featuring a generally good cast headed by Christina Wellford Scott, Martha Graber, and Jerry Chipman – brings decades of experienced community talent to bear in the interest of not very much. This is the weakest Simon play in quite some time. Even with the most expert imaginable dream cast in London or New York, it’s difficult to imagine that London Suite would ever seem anything more than a sleight of hand by one of our great comic playwrights, an arid variation on a form he has used more successfully before (Plaza Suite, California Suite). And that means we’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel, since even those two efforts come nowhere near the top of his canon – say, The Odd Couple and the autobiographical trilogy, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, Broadway Bound.

There is one completely satisfying performance among the three thin, little playlets – scarcely more than scenes – in the TM production. Scott, as a beautiful, insecure actress who has hit the commercial (if not the artistic) jackpot with a long-running television series, is brilliant. She looks like a gorgeous lioness as she nervously paces her suite, awaiting the arrival of an ex-husband whom she still loves, and hurling forth hilarious self-deprecations. Seizing the role and shaking it for all it’s worth, Scott takes full advantage of the fact that her character has most of the evening’s meager scattering of truly good lines. The performance is a sheer joy; cleverly nuanced and incisively paced. Like all the roles here, it is small; unlike most of the others, this one leaves you wanting more. The scene feels like a feeble attempt on Simon’s part to do something Cowardian – there’s a thin redolence of Private Lives about the scene – and he almost succeeds with the female. She not only has a few great one-liners, she has at least something vaguely resembling an arc to play: Scott makes her endearingly girlish and large-hearted as well as vain and sophisticated.

The role of the former husband, who has been living on Mykonos with a male lover, is at once underdeveloped and unsympathetic.

The first vignette, about a fiftyish widow and her matchmaking daughter, Graber – always a warm and appealing stage presence – is essentially miscast. The scene is really more a monologue for the mother than a substantial conversation between the two. The role requires a lightning-fast pace and enough stylistic wizardry to jump-start a frozen turkey. Graber, who has been compelling in more naturalistic roles, has trouble disguising Simon’s fundamental lack of both substance and humor here. (Adding insult to injury, the actress is ill-served by the only badly misconceived costume in the production.)

The third scene is a one-joke slapstick confection, juggled well among Brian Mott as a hotel guest whose back goes out, Mary Margaret Walker as his put-upon wife, and Anna Claire Hoffman as one of the hotel managers.

Michele C. Summers, Michael P. Hoots, David Allen, and Patrice Watson Noel lend energetic support. The scenic design is by Michael Walker with set decoration by Bill Short.

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