Some plays stand the test of time because of their soul-searching psychology, some because of the poetic nuance of their language, and still others because, well, they’re a lot of fun.
Agatha Christie’s murder mystery "The Unexpected Guest," as a new production at TexArts running through Oct. 28, certainly falls into the latter category. Though not as well-known as some other Christie plays, like "The Mouse Trap" or "And Then There Were None," "The Unexpected Guest" is no less timeless in the simple elegance of its structure and execution.
Unlike many similar murder mysteries, in "The Unexpected Guest" we never actually meet the victim; he’s already a corpse by the time the play begins. We only learn about him as the play unfolds (with descriptions that are eerily reminiscent of a certain political figure of our own era), and discover that he will be missed by nobody.
Rather than wanting to see justice done for the deceased, then, the driving force of "The Unexpected Guest" is a desire to learn the truth, a desire that Christie warps and toys with through to the play’s final moments. Director J. Robert Moore and his talented cast are similarly playful, highlighting the play’s humor and charm without surrendering to some of its more sensational temptations.
Taking place entirely in the study in a British manor house (sumptuously created by set designer Jessica Colley-Mitchell), the play proceeds like any mystery story — parading out an assortment of characters, each of who has some motive or another — with a significant twist. The first scene features a man named Michael Starkwedder (the titular unexpected guest) coming upon the corpse of Richard Warwick mere moments after he has been killed, presumably by his wife Laura, who is standing in the same room holding a gun.
Of course, the play takes a great many twists and turns from there, but much of what we learn is through the eyes of Starkwedder, played with a kind of stoic moodiness by Tyler Keyes. In some ways, Keyes’ performance is much darker than the rest of the cast’s rather lighter touch, like something out of a noir film more than an Agatha Christie story, but it works for both the character and the production, putting him just a step out of sync with the goings-on in the same way that the audience is.
Of similar note is Carson Erik Petocz as Jan Warwick, the deceased man’s younger brother. Though Christie’s play, written in 1958, portrays Warick as nervous, excited and troubled, it doesn’t specifically note why. Petocz, however, grounds Jan’s nature in a very realistic portrayal of a young man with some form of autism spectrum disorder in a standout performance.
Though at times potentially a bit slow or stuffy for younger audiences, TexArts’ "The Unexpected Guest" is an engaging mystery that builds to a dynamic solution and yet still manages to maintain an air of uncertainty to the very end. From the expert pen of Christie, though, that’s certainly not unexpected.