Raising the curtain on stage mysteries

By Sally Carpenter

I love watching plays as well as reading and writing mysteries. However, despite the fact that longest running play in history is a mystery (Agatha Christies’ “The Mousetrap,” continuously running in London since 1952), mysteries are seldom produced in local theater.

One reason could be that musicals sell more tickets than non-musicals and comedies are more popular than dramas. “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” is doing well on Broadway because it’s a musical comedy and also is based on the same novel as the well-known movie “Kind Hearts and Coronets.”

Some mystery plays that I’ve seen on stage:

“Arsenic and Old Lace.” Not a mystery but plenty of murder and dead bodies. Is there any amateur company that hasn’t done this show? I ran props for my high school’s production and saw it years later at a community theater. Its popularity seems odd due to the questionable moral ethics: the killer aunts are not punished or stopped for their crimes, neither do they show regret or remorse.

“Prescription: Murder.” Richard Levinson and William Link adapted their play into the pilot episode for “Columbo.” The play takes place in New York City but the TV movie was set in Los Angeles for filming purposes. In the play, the detective wears an overcoat, not a raincoat. The ending of the original script and the movie are different. For the 2004 production at West Valley Playhouse (Canoga Park, Calif.), Link rewrote the ending to match the movie version. Bob Van Dusen, who played Columbo, fortunately didn’t attempt a Peter Falk imitation. He played the detective as quirky, inquisitive imp and I loved it.

“The Mystery of Edwin Drood.” A musical based on an unfinished novel by Charles Dickens. Since the book doesn’t name the killer, at the play’s conclusion the action stops long enough for the audience members can vote for the killer. After ballots are tallied, the play is resumed with a final scene based on the votes. When I saw the show in 2007 at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, the voting results were not released, so I don’t know if the company presented the same ending each night or not. It’s possible the actors rehearsed a variety of endings.

“Victor.” Not a mystery but an adaptation of the “Frankenstein” story. I saw this in 2007 at the High Street Arts Center (Moorpark, Calif.). Spooky atmosphere and great acting in this production.

“Angel Street.” The American title for the British play “Gaslight” in which a husband tries to drive his wife insane so he can search for missing jewels. Seen at Conejo Players Theatre in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

“The Murder Room.” I never heard of this play until I saw it in 2007 at the tiny, 50-seat Stage Door Theater (now closed) in Agoura Hills, Calif.  It’s a funny, zany spoof of British mysteries with the standard upper-crust characters, foggy evenings, loony plot twists and secret compartments build into the set. Catch it if you can.

“And Then There Were None.” An adaptation of Christies’ “Ten Little Indians.” I’ve seen this play at theaters in two states. A good show except as the characters are killed off, the suspect pool dwindles until the killer’s identity is fairly obvious.

“Pack of Lies.” An interesting script set in England and something of a spy thriller. A man, who seems connected with the police, uses the home of an ordinary family to spy on their neighbors. Are the family’s best friends up to no good? That’s the mystery. I saw the show staged by Panic Productions in T.O.

I’ve seen the movies made from “Witness for the Prosecution,” “Anatomy of a Murder,” “Deathtrap” and “Sleuth” but not the stage versions. I’m hoping someday a local theater will a production of any or all of these.

What are your favorite mystery plays?


10 thoughts on “Raising the curtain on stage mysteries

  1. I saw “The Mousetrap” in London in 1956, when I was an infant. Hard to believe it’s still playing there. As I remember, it was fun–and I suppose still is. Great post, Sally.


    1. I read the script to “Mousetrap.” As I recall, I felt Christie didn’t play fair. The ending was unsupported and too much of a twist. Still, if audiences love it, that’s all that counts!


  2. I haven’t seen all of these. Edwin Drood sounds great. I stage-managed And Then There Were None years ago. Love Gaslight. Thanks for this post. It reminds me of why I miss working in theater!


  3. I’ve seen “The 49 Steps” done with only a few actors playing all the parts, very well done! And “Sleuth” was quite good, saw that one years ago on Broadway. Not a true mystery but sort of is Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit” which is a farce with ghosts and an element of mystery near at the end, one of my favorite plays.


    1. “The 49 Steps” has been done in Los Angeles, but that’s too far for me to drive. I’ve heard it’s quite funny. I’ve seen “Sleuth” the movie but not on stage. Theaters around here prefer plays with larger casts (so the actors bring in all their family members to buy tickets).


  4. Sally,
    I saw “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” on Broadway this summer. It was hilarious!


    1. Hi Patricia! The local theaters tend to snatch up the amateur rights to shows when they become available, so hopefully in a couple of years I can see the play locally.


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