What do you want from an Agatha Christie play? What are your expectations? First and foremost, one expects a good time at the theatre. You want a cast of interesting, diverse Christie-esque characters who are charming, romantic, and funny, who speak with passable English and/or foreign dialects. If the play is set at a baronial estate in 1947, you want the production to reflect that place and era in set design and costumes. And you want actors who are charming or mysterious or arch or grumpy each in their own peculiar way. The good news? The Group Rep’s current production, Agatha Christie’s rarely done 1931 play, The Secret of Chimneys, is satisfying on all accounts. In terms of plot and characters, it doesn’t measure up to her greatest creations, such as Hercule Poirot and Murder on the Orient Express, or Miss Marple and Murder at the Vicarage, but it does quite well for an evening at the theatre, even though it is an unfashionable three-act play. Two ten-minute intermissions allow for a leg stretch, conversation with you seat mate, and phone games, which gets you out the door by10:30pm.
The plot is complex with allusions to African adventurers, Middle-European dynasties, a master jewel thief, missing diamonds, a pending confab over a lucrative oil deal, and a couple of romantic pairings. The action takes place in the council room of Chimneys, the estate of Lord Caterham (Lloyd Pedersen), a fretful sort who resents that a scheduled meeting over oil leases is taking place in his home. Thatcher-esque female politico, Mrs. Lottie Lomax (Michele Schultz), is brokering the deal in cahoots with the aptly-named financier, Herman Banks (Bruce Nehlsen). Also in the mansion are Caterham’s daughter, Lady Eileen “Bundle” Brent (sprightly, spirited Gabrielle Sigrist), who sparks with Lottie’s assistant, Bill Eversleigh (Dave Buzzotta), and the young, beautiful widow, Virginia Revel (Stasha Surdyke), who is being blackmailed by a mysterious stranger (Doug Haverty). Too many characters? Too much plot? Not done yet. It all sorts out.
The action is jump started with the arrival of handsome, smiling Anthony Cade (Lee Grober), newly in from South African, and who just happens to be an old safari friend of Bill Eversleigh. Cade and Virginia are drawn together like kissing dolls, and agree to meet in the council room late that night, where they find the body of the mysterious stranger. It’s Christie; there needs must be a murder.
Rounding out the cast and characters are the man from Scotland Yard, Superintendent Battle (Daniel Lench), Monsieur Lemoine (Todd Andrew Ball), a detective from the French Sûreté, and last, but far from least is Treadwell (Michele Bernath), the butler-cum-housekeeper, who lights up the stage with each appearance.
Handsomely produced by the production and design team, The Secret of Chimneys boasts an impressive set by Chris Winfield (lighting by Addison Calvin) that had patrons near me murmuring about the details. Angela M. Eads’ costumes are gorgeous. I appreciated Steve Shaw’s sound design, especially the incidental music. Completing the production and design team are Victor D’wayne Little (co-Assistant Director), Kevin Hoffman, Jr. (co-Assistant Director), Doug Engalla (Videography/Photography), Judi Lewin (Makeup/Wig/Hair Design), Linda Brennan (Dialectician), and Doug Haverty (Graphic Design).
The Secret of Chimneys, directed by Jules Aaron, co-produced by Kathleen Delaney and Kevin Hoffman, Jr., runs through May 5 at The Group Theatre’s Lonny Chapman Theatre, 10900 Burbank Boulevard in North Hollywood.