Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Spider's Web
Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook

Also see Gil's recent review of Freaky Friday

Lynn Golden, James D. Brown, Jr., Cody Bro,
Colleen Rose Thompson, and Scott Sims

Photo by Renee Ashlock
Agatha Christie's 1954 play Spider's Web has both the advantage and disadvantage of not being as familiar as her other, more successful plays The Mousetrap, Ten Little Indians and Witness for the Prosecution. Therefore, most audiences will be unfamiliar with the plot and not know the person "whodunit" beforehand. The play is less often produced, most likely due to it being a slightly overwritten (and long) comedy thriller, and not a nerve-wracking murder mystery like other Christie plays, which can have you on the edge of your seat. You will most likely not be on the edge of your seat from the unevenly cast and somewhat sluggish production at Scottsdale Desert Stages.

Spider's Web is set in the drawing room of a large house in the English countryside which the diplomat Henry Hailsham-Brown (Bob Taylor) and his second wife Clarissa Hailsham-Brown (Colleen Rose Thompson) have recently rented with his young daughter Pippa (Brianna O'Brien). Clarissa is known for entertaining, flirting with, and playing games on her friends, including her former guardian Sir Rowland Delahaye (Scott Sims), the local Justice of the Peace Hugo Birch (James D. Brown, Jr.), and a young man who appears to be in love with Clarissa, Jeremy Warrender (Cody Bro). Clarissa also has to deal with the nosey gardener Mildred Peake (Lynn Golden) and the overly dry butler Elgin (Jonathan Gonzales.)

The unexpected visit from Oliver Costello (Brady Anderson), a local drug kingpin who is now married to Henry's drug-addicted former wife, and Pippa's mother, brings a threat to Pippa's custody as well as possible blackmail. One of the games Clarissa likes to play is one of speculation she calls "Supposing," as in "Supposing I were to discover a body here in the library." Her game appears to have come true when a dead body is found in the room, which brings in local Inspector Lord (Katie Lily Lambert) and Constable Jones (Zack Pepe) to discover the murderer and motive for the crime.

Christie's play has plenty of intrigue and an abundance of interesting characters, but it's not much more than a light piece of entertainment with a few laughs and a murder. It's also overly long, with some unnecessary scenes as well as a reveal of both the murderer and the secret identify of one of the characters coming out of left field. However, a mysterious door that hides a secret passageway, a desk with a secret compartment, hidden messages, and revealing secrets add some fun and unusual touches.

Desert Stage's cast has some plusses and minuses. On the plus side, dialect coach Timothy McCandless and the cast do exceptional work as they achieve a range of realistic and consistent English accents throughout the play, and a few of the actors—Sims, as the sweetly sympathetic Sir Rowland, Bro as the dashing, young cad, and Golden, who is a hoot as the delightfully batty and bombastic busybody—do a good job in walking the appropriate line between comedy and thriller. However, while most of their line delivery is on point, the majority of the cast is either too understated and droll or too overstated, with overly expressive gestures and facial expressions, to create anything close to realism.

Director Dan Ashlock, Jr. has changed the time period of the play, setting it 15 years after Christie wrote it, though I'm not sure why the change was needed. Ashlock does a very good job staging the action on Desert Stages' large Cullity Hall stage, making good use of the various doorways and the window on Ally Baumlin's nicely designed set to add a good amount of tension and drama to the piece. Also, the lead-up to the denouement of the killer is appropriately taut with tension. But the sound design, which uses an instrumental score during several dramatic scenes, including the interrogation of Clarissa, is loud and simply bizarre, with dissonant tones and what seems like two pieces of music put together, which becomes a distraction. Mickey Courtney's costumes are rich in detail and character and period perfect, and Brady Fiscus's lighting design makes good use of shadows and light to provide intrigue for the proceedings.

Agatha Christie wrote dozens of popular books and plays and while Spider's Web is a good but not a great play, and Desert Stages' production is only adequate, it should still provide some intrigue and interest to fans of Christie and murder mysteries.

Spider's Web runs through July 11, 2021, at Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre at Fashion Square, 7014 East Camelback Road, Suite 0586, Scottsdale AZ. Tickets and information are available at or by phone at 480 483-1664.