'The Mousetrap'

Ann Turiano and Eric C. Stein as the innkeepers in "The Mousetrap." (Tom Lauer, Vagabonds / December 30, 2012)

Sixty years ago, an extraordinary reign began in England, one that would provide the nation with a comforting measure of stability and continuity during some of the most tumultuous decades of the 20th century and right on into the far-from-placid 21st.

The Diamond Jubilee attracted notice all around the globe, especially since it was a milestone few would have predicted back in 1952, when the curtain first rose on Agatha Christie's theatrical murder mystery "The Mousetrap" in London's West End. Even Christie figured the play would last no more than eight months.

It became instead the longest-running work in British theater history, lasting through a dozen prime ministers and every day of the Queen Elizabeth's 60 years on the throne, and the longest-running play in the world.

Today, after more than 25,000 performances featuring more than 400 actors in the eight-member cast (film actor and director Richard Attenborough was in the first one), the show is still drawing audiences, including tourists who find it as essential as a visit to the Tower of London.

"The Mousetrap" also became something of an institution in Canada, where a Toronto production ran for nearly 27 years and 9,000 performances.

Although it did not achieve such ubiquity in this country, the play has long been a popular choice for professional and, especially, community theater companies. One of the latter is Baltimore's Vagabond Players, which has a remarkable record of its own as America's "oldest continuous little theater" since 1916.

To start off the New Year this week, the Vagabonds will unveil a production of "The Mousetrap" featuring an actress who was not exactly impressed the first time she saw the play.

"In 2005, when I went to school in London to study speech and drama, I wanted to do something a little touristy," Ann Turiano said, "so I went to see 'The Mousetrap.' It was my least favorite thing on the planet. I was just appalled. It was so literal and boring. The actors weren't doing anything with it."

It's not hard to find similar complaints. Last year, the Daily Telegraph's theater critic Charles Spencer lamented that St. Martin's Theatre "has been filled with such tedious tosh for so long. It is time the curtain came down on this fusty whodunit." (The play originated at New Ambassadors Theatre, then, without a break, moved next door to St. Martin's in 1974.)

But nothing, it seems, can stop "The Mousetrap." It even won over Turiano after she signed up for the Vagabond staging.

"When I re-read the script, I thought it's not as bad as I remembered," she said. "It can be a very crowd-pleasing piece of theater. And you can take it as far as you want to."

Turiano has the role of Mollie Ralston, who runs Monkswell Manor with her husband Giles. The husband is portrayed by Eric C. Stein, who is also director of the Vagabonds production.

"'The Mousetrap' is one of those chestnuts, like 'Arsenic and Old Lace,' that just stays around," Stein said. "But I really don't know why it's been running for so long in London. Sixty years is a long time for anything."

The closest thing to "The Mousetrap" on the New York stage, in terms of longevity, is "The Fantasticks," the musical that opened Off-Broadway in 1960 and racked up 17,162 performances before closing 10 years ago.

On Broadway, a musical also dominates the list of champions — "The Phantom of the Opera," which started its run in 1988 and has been performed more than 10,000 times. Next longest is "Cats," which clocked 7,485 performances before closing in 2000 after 18 years.

"The Mousetrap" had a lot going for it when it opened in 1952. Christie was one of the most popular writers of the day (she still ranks right up at the top with William Shakespeare, her books having sold several billion copies). And this work, which started out as a radio play in 1947 titled "Three Blind Mice," is pure, surefire Christie.

Set in a snowbound inn, "The Mousetrap" offers gruesome mixed with quaint, an assortment of colorful guests who might be murderers, and a surprise ending.

"It can seem dated," Stein said. "There are some holes in the script you could drive 15 Mack Trucks through. And the characters can be a little stale if you play it too straight; we're trying to make them a little deeper."

In the case of Mollie, that means more treating her as more than "a stereotypical housewife with an apron," Turiano said. "I'm giving her some neurotic tics, so you're wondering, why is she cleaning all the time?"

Although Stein has retained the mid-century time period of the action, he has attempted to give the staging a contemporary spin.

"We are not doing a modern interpretation exactly," the director said, "but adding more modern touches in terms of physicality — the violence is a little bit more modern — and adding bits of humor that were not originally there. We've trimmed a little bit to make the play more concise, and to take out some of the British things that American audiences wouldn't understand."

One thing Stein expects to retain is the way "The Mousetrap" has wrapped up at every one of those 25,000-plus performances in London. To help preserve the denouement twist, there is a curtain speech imploring audience members not to reveal the identity of the murderer.

"In the age of the Internet and Wikipedia the surprise is gone," Stein said. "But I'd still like to do the request at the end. Certain things lend themselves to tradition."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

"The Mousetrap" opens at 8 p.m. Friday and runs weekends through Feb. 3 at Vagabond Players, 806 S. Broadway. Tickets are $17 to $22. Call 410-563-9135 or go to vagabondplayers.org.

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