Agatha Christie’s “The Unexpected Guest” directed by Larry Simmons and produced by Maureen Rogers is presently playing at Laurel Mill Playhouse on historic Main Street in Laurel, Maryland through February 2, 2020.
“The Unexpected Guest” opened in London’s West End in 1958. The play is very typical of the iconic mystery writer, and Christie actually wrote this directly for the stage. It involves murder, beautiful wealthy women, villains and secrets from the past. The action takes place in the study of Richard and Laura Warwick. Of course, there are lots of twists in the plot to keep up the suspense.
Briefly, without spoiling the ending, the play begins with a man, Michael Starkwedder (Adam Czarnecki) entering the home of Richard and Julia Warwick (Shea-Lynn Imler) through an unlocked patio door. There he finds Richard shot dead in his wheelchair with his wife standing nearby with a gun in her hand. In a seemingly noble gesture, Starkwedder helps Julia cover-up her crime. Living in the house with Julia and Richard are Richard’s nineteen-year-old half-brother, Jan Warwick (Kyle Kelley) who is mentally and intellectually challenged, Mrs. Warwick, Richard’s (but not Jan’s) mother (Maureen Rogers), Miss Bennett (Emma Jensen), the longtime family manager and housekeeper, and Henry Angell (Jim Berard), the personal aide to Richard Warwick who was an invalid due to a hunting accident before his demise. We find out very early on that Richard was a mean and bitter man who enjoyed killing the neighbor’s pets. There is also the dapper neighbor and friend, Julian Farrar (Nick Roth) who complicates the plot. Of course, this wouldn’t be Agatha Christie without the police in this story, Inspector Thomas (Mark T. Allen) and Sergeant Cadwallader (Christopher A. Kess). Again, not wanting to give too much away as there are many turns to the plot, listen carefully as Christie gives you the clues to solve the mysteries in this tale.
‘The Unexpected Guest’ is wonderfully indulgent fun. If you enjoy a good mystery and like suspense, this production will provide you with both.
The acting in this production keeps you on the edge of your seat. Czarnecki is both charming and mysterious. The opening scene is quite long. but his stage presence along with Imler’s portrayal of the part femme fatale, part loving wife, escalates the intrigue, in particular, the relationship of this stranger to the lady of the house. Czarnecki’s performance, including a wonderful British accent, is the glue that holds the action together. The actor, a recent graduate of UMBC, shows wonderful promise.
Imler also gives a subtle performance. Is she really the loving sister-in-law or the wife who has had enough of a bullying and unloving husband? Imler is able to keep this answer just beyond our certainty which adds to the mystery.
Allen’s Inspector Thomas is also worthy of note. Allen’s stage experience keeps his character right out of the writer’s recognizable repertoire. It is perfect Christie. The same is true for Kess’s Sergeant. He plays the underling in typical British mystery fashion.
Kelley’s portrayal of the “retarded” (the author’s description, not mine) and unbalanced Jan is wonderfully creepy. His cloying behavior to Julia and his slow unhinging due to the murder of his brother is chilling. Kelley’s Jan is as scary as Norman Bates.
Berard also plays a villainous role as the very controlled Henry Angell. Jensen’s Miss Bennett, the real core of the family, reveals her powerful grip on the family in Act II in a spine-chilling scene with the maniacal, Jan. Both are standout performances.
Roth as the neighbor with is own secrets and Rogers as the aging matriarch of the family also gives notable performances.
The set by Simmons and Allen reflects the British upper-class home. The patio doors almost become a character themselves. The walls are nicely angled to keep the effect visually interesting.
Marge McGugan’s costumes, as usual, are always well done. She keeps the play in period (1950s) and gives it class.
Simmons’s light-touch style of direction appears to have allowed the actors to develop their own characterizations. He allows their talent to provide motives and insights.
“The Unexpected Guest” is wonderfully indulgent fun. If you enjoy a good mystery and like suspense, this production will provide you with both.
Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes with an Intermission.