Murder Lurks Around Every Corner in McCarter's "Mousetrap"
Consider it the Big Ben of British theatre.
In 1952, a murder mystery by Agatha Christie called “The Mousetrap” opened in London’s West End. Sixty-four years and more than 25,000 performances later, audiences still flock to see it — making it by far the longest-continuously running theater production in history.
But if you ask director Adam Immerwahr, that’s part of the reason Christie’s play is actually underrated.
“It’s sort of a tourist event in London,” he explains. “I think that doesn’t help.
Hence, Immerwahr is excited to helm a new staging of “The Mousetrap” about 3,500 miles away from London — at McCarter Theatre in Princeton.
The director, whose version opens tonight and will run through March 27, laments that despite its world-record popularity, the play “so infrequently gets taken seriously by world-class theaters like McCarter.”
Even more so than its “tourist-trap” label, Immerwahr says, the biggest issue is that critics and audiences often dismiss the mystery genre as titillating fluff.
“But I think this is a literature-worthy mystery,” he stresses. “I think it’s just as interesting and good a play as some of the plays written by people we often consider the greats: Miller, O’Neill, Wilde, etc.”
Immerwahr adds that Christie herself is an underrated playwright — a female author who is often pigeonholed as a mystery novelist.
“People assume, ‘Oh, she was writing plays on the side.’ But no, she’s as much a playwright,” he says. “She’s, in fact, one of the greatest female playwrights of the 20th century. And one of the greatest playwrights of the 20th century.”
On the surface, the plot is pretty straightforward: a group of strangers are stranded at a manor in the English countryside during a snowstorm.
And one of them may be a murderer.
Soon, a detective arrives. And it all leads up to a now-famous twist ending.
But, as with any mystery, the wonder is in how the details — and misdirections — unfold. And Immerwahr says it helps that most of the cast and crew never saw the London production.
“We’re all just treating it like this piece of art,” Immerwahr explains. “How do we make it as delightful and charming as we can — and suspenseful? How can we get the audience leaning forward to try and figure out the mystery with us?
“You can’t watch a mystery and sit back and let it wash over you,” he adds. “Your brain starts spinning instantly as you try to pick up the clues. You engage with the artists on stage in a wholly different way than you do almost any other kind of play.”
Immerwahr was formerly an associate artistic director at McCarter, working alongside head artistic director Emily Mann. “The Mousetrap” was one of the shows they picked together for the current season.
But a few months ago, Immerwahr left the Tony-winning Princeton theater to become the artistic director of Theater J, the nation’s largest Jewish theater, in Washington D.C.
Thus, this show is a bit of a homecoming. “It’s fun to walk back into the building and see everyone and get to work as a guest director,” Immerwahr says.
Especially, he adds, on a production like this.
The set was designed by Alexander Dodge, who scored a Tony nomination for his set to Broadway hit “The Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.” In Immerwahr’s words, it’s an “outrageously glorious space.”
Plus, he says, the “perfect” costumes were designed by Tony winner Jess Goldstein.
And the cast features a number of theater vets, including Jessica Bedford, Richard Gallagher, Graeme Malcolm (known to McCarter audiences for his multi-year run as Ebeneezer Scrooge in the theater’s annual version of “A Christmas Carol”), Sandra Shipley, Thom Sesma, Adam Green, Andy Phelan and Emily Young.
Then, of course, there’s McCarter itself — a nationally recognized theater just off Route 27.
“There’s not a lot of McCarters in the country — theaters of their stature, of their size, of their professionalization,” Immerwahr says. “This is really one of the top theaters in the country. It’s a real gift for central New Jersey to have this.”
The reason? The director explains that new work is created at McCarter. Often, regional theaters mount shows that recently ran on Broadway.
“Every time McCarter does a show,” Immerwahr says, “there’s a real reason for it, there’s an artist at the center of it, and it’s a fresh production. And that’s really exciting.”
Agatha Christie's "The Mousetrap" is on stage March 8-27 at the McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ 08540.