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Team Spirit Helps Reprise an Accessible Agatha Christie Whodunit

Bruce Gray figures that Agatha Christie is a name people can trust.

“It’s a great way to bring someone into the theater who’s never been there before,” said the director. “For people who might be afraid of going to see Shakespeare or Chekhov or even David Rabe, Agatha Christie is something they are comfortable with.

“Theater can be very confrontative. And when it really works well, it can be upsetting. But this is accessible. When people come to see Agatha Christie, they know what they’re in for.”

This weekend, Gray’s staging of Christie’s “The Unexpected Guest” opens at the Tiffany Theatre in West Hollywood, in a reprise of his acclaimed production that ran at Beverly Hills’ Theatre 40 in June.

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“It’s more than a whodunit,” emphasized Gray, 52. “It deals with bigger issues.”

The play begins with the title character entering a dark room and coming upon a dead man--and the victim’s wife standing next to him with a gun. “The victim is one of those Hemingway-type men: into big-game hunting, lived fast, drank a lot. Then he was mauled by a lion in Kenya and became a cripple. And all the things that were wonderful about him disappeared; all the terrible things bubbled to the surface.”

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The suspects are all members of the household. “This man had disrupted and alienated and abused everyone in the family,” Gray explained. “He was just an awful human being who deserved to die. There’s even something about the room that’s violent. It’s filled with African masks and skulls, animal heads, zebra and tiger skins, an elephant foot stuffed with magazines and newspapers. I mean, it’s really awful. But now he’s dead--and how do they feel about it?”

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The director’s own feelings are definitely mixed with nostalgia. Born in Puerto Rico, he grew up in Michigan, got a master’s in psychology from the University of Toronto and moved to England in the late ‘50s, where he ended up modeling and acting. Eventually, he was invited to join the Theatre Royal in Bath--where one of his 14-plays-in-14-weeks repertory included a role in “The Unexpected Guest.”

This time around with the show, Gray only had eyes for directing.

“I can’t do them both--acting and directing,” he said firmly. “The directing’s too demanding. As a director, at the opening of a play, I’m totally spent. There’s nothing I haven’t had a hand in: the set design, the costumes, the lighting, the sound, getting the flyers done, the programs, making sure everything has the right look about it. It’s a huge management job: managing a cast of nine and a crew of 20 and getting them to work harmoniously--for appalling money.”

Financial woes notwithstanding, team spirit has been strong: “It’s like Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland ‘Let’s put on a show,’ ” Gray said proudly. “One of the people in the cast took on the moving: ‘It will be my job to move all the furniture and flats to the Tiffany.’ Someone else said, ‘I’ll do the programs.’ Someone else is handling the opening-night party. Everyone is acting as producers, pulling together. It’s not Bruce Gray who’s going into this theater. It’s this company.

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In spite of the rigors involved in mounting a show, Gray believes that the theater is worth it.

“I think it’s a very different experience going to a theater than going to a movie,” he said. “In theater, there’s much more of a relationship between the members of the audience and the show--and it’s different every night.

“The first time I went to a theater I remember wondering, ‘Gee, what goes on here? Is it going to be embarrassing? Are they going to ask me questions?’ Theater is very present, you know. An actor can suddenly decide to walk off the stage and sit next to you. That’s part of it.”

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Gray’s own acting has run the gamut from a slew of New York soap operas to 10 years at Circle Repertory and films such as “Dragnet” and “Let’s Get Harry.” Since moving here in 1980, he has developed high visibility in what a friend calls “suit acting”: playing lawyers on “Dynasty,” “Dallas,” “Knots Landing,” “The Colbys” and the new daytime soap “Generations.”

“Acting and directing address different parts of your talent,” Gray pointed out. “As a director, there’s a feeling of emptying yourself into a show: your sensibilities, your judgment, your willingness to be the wall. Sometimes an actor wants that; they want you to say no. Other actors don’t need that. It’s about dealing with people, understanding a group dynamic--and after you’ve cast it well, trusting the actors, encouraging them in the direction they’re going.”

And acting? Gray sighed.

“Often the five minutes that ends up on the screen took three days to shoot, a couple of weeks out of your life. It’s not terribly satisfying. Not that I don’t do my damnedest to give a good performance: I try to be dangerous and courageous, give the director something he can work with. But usually you’re just a vehicle for some plot point in the story. So working on the stage is a great outlet. If I had my druthers, I’d never act again. Really. I’d make the switch in a minute.”

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