Agatha Christie died from natural causes at the ripe old age of 85. Pretty boring, huh? After decades of slaughtering her literary victims in the most creative and devious of ways, Dame Agatha's own denouement was rather uneventful.
Although Ms. Christie is not directly responsible for A Party to Murder, playwrights Marcia Kash and Douglas E. Hughes seem enamored with the lady. In the play, Christie's wildly successful stage play The Mousetrap is repeatedly alluded to and her motherly visage looms large from a frame above the fireplace. The twisting, turning, and shocking plot is an homage to the style of the mistress of murder.
On Halloween, a group of six privileged socialites gather to participate in a murder mystery party. The prize, awarded to the amateur detective who delivers the most probable theory of the murder, is extraordinary. Past winners have requested trips to Monte Carlo, ancient Egyptian jewelry, anything the fevered, spoiled mind can imagine. It's when Elwood, a slightly sadistic, filthy rich tycoon, wins that the real mystery ensues. Elwood needs not to request extravagant material possessions. He wants something much more valuable: from each of five other players, Elwood requests a favor. Any favor his demented little heart desires.
Knowing what he knows about Elwood, Willy, a former pro-footballer and current Elwood lackey, is particularly adverse to this request. Elwood's girlfriend McKenzie also seems intimidated by this possibility. The party's host, mystery writer Charles Prince, is intrigued, but cautious. Only the Addison sisters, Henri and Valerie, seem unfazed. New to the annual mystery event, they know little of Elwood.
Partygoers reason that if the requests are too extreme, they will simply decline to fulfill them. However, when Elwood swings a loaded pistol through the air, threatening any partygoer who refuses his desire, the participants are sufficiently scared. Each person receives a personalized request, in the form of a letter. Each request, if fulfilled, would ruin the life of the recipient.
The tension heightens when it is revealed that, no matter what occurs during the night, there is no escape. These people are utterly alone, on an abandoned island, in a deserted castle famed as the last known whereabouts of the infamous Phantom Five, socialites who gathered annually to play murder mystery games. Sound familiar? The Five simply vanished, disappeared into thin air, never to be heard from again. Foreshadowing, anyone?
Although the story itself is designed to enthrall, the lighting, set, and sound design work together almost flawlessly to screw with the audience's mind. In the style of a medieval castle built of gray, stone block, the set is cold and dark. Although, at first glance, nothing seems amiss, a closer inspection reveals a menacing jack o' lantern, a suit of armor that seems to be in motion, and a skull bookend. The ominous feeling becomes overwhelming when well timed lightening begins to flash and thunder to roll.
As one would hope, this haunted abode features secret passageways. But instead of being cluttered with spiders' webs and possessed by ghosts, this secret passageway is festooned with chains and ropes, more like an S & M den than a shortcut to the kitchen.
Although they're not exactly related to the content of the play, arrive at the theater early to hear such classic tunes as "The Monster Mash," The Munsters theme, and Danny Elfman's classic Tales from the Crypt theme. As the lights dim and the actors take their places, the stabbing chords of the Psycho theme ring out over piercing screams, setting a frightening tone.
Morey Fazzi plays a jovial Willy, a punster who draws consistent laughs. Unfortunately, he is the show's only standout. Although the cast is proficient, almost all are consistently overacting. It's as if they've reverted back to the stage era before Stanislavski put an end to stock characters and rehearsed movements. Lorna Love Restivo, as the put upon supermodel McKenzie, and Stephanie Roosa, as the suspiciously naïve Henri, are particularly guilty.
Overall the production is certainly a treat, although it does contain a bevy of tricks that cannot now be exposed for fear of spoiling your chance to solve the puzzle that is A Party to Murder.
A Party to Murder | through October 28 | Blackfriars Theatre, 28 Lawn Street | $24 | 454-1260, www.blackfriars.org.