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A haunting “Hollow” in Newport Beach

Red herrings abound in murder mystery fiction, and no author was more adept at the practice than Agatha Christie, whose published works rank in volume only behind Shakespeare and the Bible.

Christie specialized in the whodunit genre, assembling a group of people together, knocking one off and then bringing in a police inspector to ferret out the guilty party among the survivors. One of her later works was “The Hollow,” now challenging audience sleuths at the Newport Theatre Arts Center.

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Not as craftily accomplished as “The Mousetrap” or “And Then There were None,” this twisty tale still manages to draw the playgoer into its web of intrigue, chiefly because of its enthusiastic interpretation. Its first act is fairly talky but director Sharyn Case moves her actors briskly about the stage to fend off ennui.

When the murder is committed there are, as usual, several suspects with sufficient motive. This gives the competent cast members ample opportunity to stretch their performing muscles, which they do with gusto.

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Most impressive of the troupe is Harriet Whitmyer as the dotty dowager who may or may not be a candidate for a home for the easily amused. Whitmyer's non-sequitur outbursts throw the others, and the audience, off guard repeatedly.

Alan Slabodkin as her stuffily calm husband provides an effective contrast, while Sarah Regli as their artistic daughter banks her inner fires nicely until they flare up in an emotional rampage.

Visitors Stephen Saatjian and Carla Naragon as a prominent doctor and his disillusioned wife impress early on with their verbal combat. Jack Talbott and Jasmine O’Hea are less involving in their youthful, awkward courtship.

A movie actress from the “colonies,” richly enacted by Kerri Malmgren, further disrupts the proceedings while Gordon Marhoefer as the aged, crumbling butler lends a typical British touch.

Investigating the crime, Brian Page brings a strong, knowledgeable presence. Mark Series and Kristina Anderson complete the cast in more servile assignments as a police sergeant and a parlor maid.

Set designer Andrew Otero has added a musty, early-1950s atmosphere, abetted by Jackson Halphide's clever lighting effects. Otero and Claudia Berglund have created fine period costumes.

A bit lengthy at just under three hours, “The Hollow” nevertheless engages the attention of its audience. It’s a Christie mystery stuffed with red herrings at the Newport Theatre Arts Center.

Tom Titus reviews local theater.

If You Go:

What: “The Hollow”

Where: Newport Theatre Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach

When: Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. until Oct.7

Cost: $20

Information: (949) 631-0288 or ntaconline.com

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