The Bat/by Mary Roberts Rinehart & Avery Hopwood/directed by Martin M. Speer/Theatre 40/through August 26
For the third summer in a row Theatre 40 is turning back time to present a delightfully eerie murder mystery thriller: first, it was Agatha Christie's Black Coffee, then last summer The Spider's Web, and now, from the early twenties, Mary Roberts Rinehart's and Avery Hopwood's The Bat. The current production is not quite as tightly packaged as the previous two, but, despite the play's lengthy exposition and a somewhat slow delivery, it does have guest artist Veronica Cartwright on board, an opulent set and costumes...and, with its thunder and lightning blackouts and creepy images popping up outside the window and in the corridor, it certainly is a whole lot of fun to experience.
The play may seem extra long because it bears the plot of a Golden Age detective novel with a multitude of complex details, quite rare for the American stage. The Bat - nothing to do with the Batman serial - is the name for a master criminal who leaves behind a signature bat emblem wherever he preys. In the story a bank goes under at the same time its president succumbs. There are those non-detectives with finely tuned crime-solving minds who allege that he plotted to steal the money and hide it in a secret room of his mansion, recently rented to Cornelia Van Gorder (Veronica Cartwright) by the deceased's nephew Richard Fleming (Ross Alden). Death letters arrive, and rocks come crashing through the window with attached sinister notes in an attempt to get Cornelia out of the house, but her downright stubbornness - or perhaps the desire for a good old fashioned, exciting thrill-ride - force her to stay. Also in the mansion or soon-to-be are a whimpering, scared-to-death maid Lizzie (Loraine Shields), Cornelia's beautiful niece Dale Ogden (Elizabeth J. Carlisle), with a deep dark secret of her own, the bank's cashier Jack Bailey (Michael Perl), whom the police suspect of stealing the money, a suspicious-acting family doctor (Stephen Davies), a no nonsense Japanese butler Billy (Yas Takahashi), Fleming's chauffeur Reginald Beresford (Chris Petschler), and of course, a detective, a stalwart one named Anderson (Madison Mason), called in by Cornelia herself to investigate the scary goings-on and lastly, to complicate the puzzle even more... an unknown intruder, found bound and gagged on the property, who claims amnesia (Max Bogner). They are all looking for the money, but for one, it's a life or death matter; in fact, he or she will stop at nothing... including murder. Who's the culprit?
The cast, under Martin M. Speer's mostly fine direction, do excellent work, led by the classy Cartwright who gives a special grande dame quality to Cornelia, Mason a sturdy and seemingly dependable Detective Anderson and the arresting Carlisle as the curious Dale Ogden. Speer needs to have his actors pick up their pacing in Act I. The lines should fly with precision speed. He should also find some way to punctuate/enhance more of the subtly comedic moments. As is, the laughs are sparse. Jeff G. Rack has designed an alluringly elaborate drawing room set and Michele Young, some very lovely costumes. Recordings of John Barry's richly haunting scores make for great background music.
All in all, The Bat is an enjoyably fun way to spend a summer evening in the theatre. It's not Agatha Christie, but does have its divinely tingling moments, especially when the stage is engulfed in blackness with only the tiniest glimmer of light. For mystery fans, this is a must!