Monday, August 08, 2011

They do but jest...

Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap has attained a level of fame by setting a record as the longest-running play in theatre history. The story is a fairly routine one, with an isolated circle of suspects and murder (of course). It’s an expansion of the 1948 short story Three Blind Mice and premiered in 1952, and it hasn’t run out of steam since.

But in Scott K. Ratner’s play Kill a Better Mousetrap, Miles Edward Merbinau argues that it’s one of Christie’s worst efforts—“all the superficial trappings of a great Christie work, with none of the ingenuity,” he says. Personally, I’ve never seen a production of The Mousetrap, but my impression from reading the script was that it was an agreeably silly little play with a few nice touches of ingenuity.

But perhaps I should explain more about Merbinau. This entire play could be described as a character comedy. It involves Merbinau talking with an analyst, a professional woman in her thirties. The reason the analyst is having this discussion is because Merbinau turned himself in for planning to attempt a murder. And as he explains, it is all to get rid of The Mousetrap, and after all, murder was just a last resort.

Like with The Mousetrap, I haven’t seen the play acted out, but with talented actors in the roles, it would make for an excellent evening at the theatre. The script is delightfully witty and genuinely funny. The exchanges between the analyst and Merbinau are simply golden, like this one:

Merbinau : … Isn’t that what people usually do in your office? Lie down on the couch?
The Analyst: Actually, there is no couch in my office.
Merbinau: No couch?
The Analyst: No.
Merbinau: Really? Wow! Budget cuts, huh?

This is a difficult play to review because of its excellence. The dialogue is wonderful, and discussion of Christie and mysteries in general is very passionate and obviously done with plenty of enthusiasm. Merbinau’s attempts to shut the play down keep backfiring in very funny ways. That’s part of the problem in writing this review— you don’t want to blabber too much and reveal the jokes.

There is only a minor quibble from my direction, and it’s something I really can’t blame the author for, as my nasty suspicious mind was at work. I anticipated the play’s conclusion, although it is still very well-done, as we find out just why The Mousetrap is so successful (and the theory is brilliant). Since I read the first version of the script, it’s been tightened somewhat, and I think that I wouldn’t have anticipated anything with the improved script.

There’s also a very good rant from Merbinau about the madness of Hollywood, which seems alarmingly like a case of foretelling the future:

Merbinau:  Are you kidding? "The longest running play in theater history."  That's all that matters. By the time Spielberg, Ron Howard, or whoever gets through with it, there won't be much left except the title and a few character names, anyway.  They'll get Meryl Streep to play Mrs. Boyle, Johnny Depp to play Sergeant Trotter, Edward Norton and Diane Lane as the Ralstons, and maybe Will Ferrell as Christopher Wren. Add 3D, a CGI ski chase down the snow-capped mountainside, a lush title song by Taylor Swift, and voila! Next year's blockbuster hit...James Cameron's The Mousetrap!

This was written before Disney infamously announced that they would “reimagine” Miss Marple with Jennifer Garner in the role, as a sexy young 30s female detective… a transparent attempt to cash in on the popularity of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes. Does that not sound like a production meeting? (Of course, nothing has been heard of the film yet, and hopefully things will remain that way, but I wouldn’t trust Hollywood.)

Overall, Kill a Better Mousetrap is a delightful look at the world of Agatha Christie and The Mousetrap. It is a genuinely fun read and would make for an excellent production with the right actors. Fans of mysteries and Agatha Christie will definitely appreciate this play, as it takes good-natured cracks at the celebrated play and comes up with an explanation to account for its popularity that is simply brilliant. It’s a solid script and I highly recommend it.


  1. Patrick, you might also want to read (or see a production of!) Tom Stoppard's brilliant, "The Real Inspector Hound," in which two theater critics watch (and become embroiled in) a play-within-a-play that is a marvelous parody of "The Mousetrap." It's hilarious, and - as with all Stoppard - a great intellectual game as well.

  2. They're likely not far off on how Hollywood works. My understanding is that to sell to Hollywood, you should take the money and run. If not, you'll be eternally frustrated. Worst casting ever -- Whoopi Goldberg as Bernie Rhodenbarr.. sigh..

  3. Thank you for the recommendation, Les! I loved "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead" (even the inferior film adaptation) and I find Stoppard a consistently brilliant playwright.

    Or Val Kilmer as the Saint... Yeah, I've said more than enough...

  4. @Jeffrey Marks

    Wait... what? Whoopi Goldberg as Bernie Rhodenbarr? The same Bernie Rhodenbarr who owns a secondhand bookshop and moonlights as a burglar-cum-detective? How did that happen?!

    I did a quick check, and they turned Bernie Rhodenbarr into Bernice Rhodenbarr? Do they write and cast these movies while on a coke binge? And am I a snobbish purist for hating this movie without having seen it?