In 1950, after 30 years of keeping good company, Dame Agatha Christie decided she didn't much like Inspector Poirot in "The Hollow." So she simply axed the tidy little Belgian from her stage adaptation of the mystery, which is currently playing under the same name at the Laurel Mill Playhouse.
Poirot fans who enjoyed Laurel Mill Playhouse's run of Christie's "Black Coffee" last March won't miss the fastidious inspector; returning director Mark Allen has assembled a captivating troupe to enact Christie's precursor to "The Mousetrap."
And Inspector Colquhoun of Scotland Yard and his sidekick Detective Sgt. Penny, skillfully played by Eric Henry and Gregory Mangiapane, step up quite aptly.
Christie's fresh, well-written characters, in comely period costumes by Kim Delk, dominate the plot of "The Hollow" from the moment the show opens at Sir Henry and Lady Angkatell's estate outside of London, on a Friday afternoon, in the year 1951.
Designed and lit by Allen Briggs, what is seen of the upper crust Angkatells' domicile — the bare suggestion of an upstage garden room behind a central drawing room, with two prominent French doors stage left, and another entrance stage right — is aesthetically pleasing.
But as attractive as the set may be, the placement of the furniture and downstage carpet often works against the actors, causing some unavoidable blocking gaffes.
As the show opens, Henrietta Angkatell, played by Dana Medford, is far upstage sculpting in the garden room, her mysterious artwork remaining just out of sight (savvy Christie followers will pay careful attention to such artifacts).
Sir Henry Angkatell, played by Laurel Mill Playhouse veteran Tom Schneider, reads a newspaper and chats with Henrietta from the downstage drawing room where a portrait of Ainswick, an estate owned by an Angkatell cousin, hangs over the fireplace.
They are soon joined by the slightly daft Lady Lucy Angkatell, played by Laurel resident Maureen Rogers, who is the playhouse's public liaison.
Light conversation leads to mention of the other cousins and houseguests expected for a weekend visit that very evening: Edward Angkatell and Midge Harvey, played by Laurel resident Grant Myers and Jen Lechuga; and Dr. John Cristow and his wife, Gerda, played by Ed Higgins and Stephanie Shade.
Enter Gudgeon, the requisite white-gloved butler played by Bernie Noeller, and the brain-teasing whodunit begins.
In her inimitable signature style, Dame Christie carefully orchestrates layers of genuine clues with a myriad of motives and red herrings, intertwined with light touches of humor (largely credited to Lady Lucy's non sequiturs) and cleverly convenient plot devices: Of course, Sir Henry owns a gun collection, and, of course, the Angkatells harbor passionate secrets.
Distant cousin Midge Harvey adores Ainswick and secretly loves Edward, the current owner. But Edward thinks of the pretty young woman as a child and is obsessed instead with sophisticated Henrietta. While Lady Lucy entertains hopes that Edward and Henrietta will marry, Henrietta loves someone else entirely.
That someone else is the good doctor John Cristow, a married houseguest who indulges in an assignation with ex-flame Veronica Craye, a British-born Hollywood starlet played by Sabrina Shahmir, right under his wife and his mistress's noses. He hardly takes the encounter seriously, but Craye has other ideas.
As the stalwart Gudgeon, Bernie Noeller exists in two worlds: his unflagging life of service and devotion to Lady Angkatell; and the working-class culture from which he introduces Doris, a maid-in training played by Carleigh Jones.
While the tension in Act 1 builds too slowly due to some timing issues, the characterizations are all delightful, and charmingly set the scene for murder while introducing the victim and the unknown killer.
It all pays off in Acts 2 and 3, where even avid Christie fans should feel at home as they ride the well-paced twists and turns that culminate in a satisfying and (probably) surprising ending.
During rehearsals, Allen withheld the identity of the killer from his actors until a month before the show opened. In spite of some intermittent and easily forgiven minor rough spots, they do an admirable job of navigating the intricate plot without giving away a thing.
"The Hollow" continues through Feb. 26, Fridays and Saturdays, at 8 p.m.; Sundays, at 2 p.m., at Laurel Mill Playhouse, 508 Main St. General admission is $13. Students, 18 and under; and seniors, 65 and over, pay $10. For reservations, call 301-617-9906 and press 2.
This story has been updated.