How different things look in the daylight. A shadowy murderess might look an innocent housewife when night slips away into day. In one of Agatha Christie’s more spine-tingling mysteries, all is not as it seems for the Warwick family in South Wales. Closing the cabaret space 2019 summer season for Cockpit in Court, The Unexpected Guest is riddled with unexpected plot twists and daring reveals that keeps audiences on the edge of their seat through to the mysterious conclusion.
Directed by Lida Chambers, the production itself is somewhat unevenly cast, though not without enthusiasm all round. The show’s biggest hiccup is the inconsistency with accents; Agatha Christie’s work takes place in South Wales and several of the cast try to emulate that British sound of the time period. Most warble in and out, creating a distraction from what should be swift and exacting delivery and pacing. Some of the performers do manage a successful sustain with their accent, including Allison McAlister as Laura Warwick, while others— like Jack Taylor as Sergeant Caldwallader, choose to forego the accent entirely, and this is preferable to those who cannot maintain the affectation. Chambers, to her praiseworthy credit, has managed to keep the edgy suspense of the play at the forefront of the production. Sound Designer Corey Sekulow assists greatly in this endeavor.
Scenic and Lighting Designer G. Maurice “Moe” Conn, III creates a realistic household interior and does mood lighting with a passionate flare, that helps to heighten the suspense, particularly during the opening scene, which takes place “in the dark.” Properties Master Lisa L. Boeren deserves praise for all sorts of things; she’s practically putting whole bodies of her talent on display in this production. And while the costumes are nothing spectacular, as it’s a relatively simple period drama, Costume Designer Wil E. Crowther deserves a nod for having everyone outfitted appropriately and for the costumes’ clean appearances.
The production is filled with characters that simply pop— be it physically popping into the scene as some are wont to do or vibrantly popping out in their mere existence, the way certain secondary and tertiary Agatha Christie characters often do. Liz Boyer Hunnicutt’s Mrs. Warwick is a prime example of the latter form of popping, with her lively stage present, despite the physical hampering of an elderly character woman. Hunnicutt, who is much too young to be playing an octogenarian, deftly maneuvers with the crippling effects of age but displays the character’s mental prowess to be sharper than a tack. Spry of vocality and shrouded in a fog of mysterious deception, Hunnicutt sets a solid example of how to make a supporting character shine. So too does the flawless performance delivered by Restin Peece* as Richard Warwick. The gormless, paled expression which rests unmoving upon his lifeless features are to die for. Peece gives one of the performances of the show, shocking the audience at his complete and utter stillness during the entirety of the first act. The detail to his facial makeup, bleeding wound, and overall stiffness is quite impressive.
Stealing scenes with his maddening existence, Joshua Michael Smith as Jay Warwick is quite a force to be reckoned with. There is an inconceivable layer of deadpan disturbia present every time Smith enters a scene. Perpetually petulant and yet creepy beyond compare, Smith delivers this unsettling character with gusto that puts the audience ill at ease. A bit like an unwelcomed Nosferatu type, Smith’s Jan Warwick will give you nightmares long after the play draws to its shocking conclusion.
Laura Warwick (Allison McAlister) is a femme noir. Half femme fatal, half star noir, McAlister wears enigmatic mystery over her portrayal of Laura like a fine, gossamer veil. There is something unsettling about her stage presence, keeping you ever on your toes to determine just what she’s up to and whether or not she’s actually shot her husband, Richard Warwick (again, the incomparable Restin Peece), though all signs point to yes, when the show opens in darkness with her holding the gun. McAlister plays brilliantly opposite Michael Starkwedder (Michael Papa), the titular role of the play, the unexpected guest. Going toe to toe for who might be more mysterious, Papa maintains his airs of suspicion both about everyone in the house and the deceased as well as McAlister maintains her sketchy reasoning behind the events as they unfold. Both deliver superb pacing, particularly in the expository scene, which sets the framework of this thriller. Papa and McAlister craft the mood and done which ultimately propels the play into suspense.
Catch the thrill of suspense this summer; it will keep you guessing, this The Unexpected Guest upstairs in the cabaret space at Cockpit in Court.
Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission
The Unexpected Guest plays through August 4, 2019 at Cockpit in Court in the upstairs Cabaret Space of The Robert and Eleanor Romadka College Center at the Community College of Baltimore County Essex Campus— 7201 Rossville Boulevard, Essex MD. For tickets call the box office at (443) 840-2787 or purchase them online.
*Restin Peece’s performance perfection is owed to some combination of Director Linda Chambers and the production staff for The Unexpected Guest.