By Russ Bickerstaff   Published Oct 27, 2005 at 5:22 AM

An ad in a local paper announces where and when a murder is to take place. The place in question is Little Paddocks, which would seem to come as a surprise to Letitia Blacklock, who happens to live there. Drawn by the ad, the curious come by as the hour draws near. To everyone's surprise at the exact moment the ad stated, the lights in the room go out and someone gets shot. This comes to everyone's surprise because, of course, it is an Agatha Christie story. Those who would know state that "A Murder Is Announced," is one of Agatha Christie's most tightly-wound plots . . . not difficult to disagree with after having seen Leslie Darbon's stage adaptation of the novel at the Sunset Playhouse.

The story is folded into some rather interesting little plot twists at dramatically integral moments throughout the play's six scenes in two acts. Twelve characters share six acts quite comfortably, occasionally changing attitudes and suspicions as the audience looks on. Chrisitie has populated the story with quite a range of different personalities and temperaments. Sunset has done a satisfactory job of filling all the roles with some depth. Each of the actors in each of the roles is quite distinctly different. The nagging little problem is that, while all the actors put in solid performances, not all of the characters are terribly interesting. All of them are distinctly different, but not all of them are distinctly interesting. Christie's original novel would've had much more time to explore everybody in depth, but the play has to make concessions and, as a result, not all of the characters make interesting appearances on stage.

To complicate matters, the cast at Sunset Playhouse provides a sweeping range of talent. The performances were varied for various reasons. Actor Douglas Smedbron, for instance, had to take over the role of Inspector Craddock on extremely short notice. The actor in the role throughout rehearsals had fallen ill and Smedbron leapt into the jaws of the machine to take over the role. As would've been expected of any actor in his position, Smedbron was still learning that character as of the end of opening weekend. He was still not off book as of the first Sunday matinee, so it would seem as though he was still finding the character and his connection to him. While it didn't look completely out of place to see a police inspector frequently referring to a notebook, it was undeniably obvious that he was referring to it for his lines, which was a small distraction from the story. Inspector Craddock is a really interesting role that was hampered a bit by situations beyond everyone's control.

In stark contrast to the situation with Inspector Craddock, there is the situation with Julia Simmons. Every time she talks, one can't help but imagine the words, "femme fatale," flashing below her in glowing neon. It's all too obvious that she's the beautiful, mysterious woman who is not quite what she appears. This is unavoidable. The character is a cliché written into a story over half a century ago (Christie had the novel published in 1950) long before she had become a cliché. While Julia Simmons comes off as being somewhat poorly written to a modern murder mystery audience, she is played with remarkable poise by the talented Amy Kull. With powerful confidence and dry humor, Kull plays the cliché of a femme fatale extremely well, but it's still a cliché.

Either the character is interesting and the performance is lacking for some reason or the character is stone boring and the performance is excellent. This Carddock/Simmons problem easily fades out in the wash of a really interesting plot if you happen to be into the whole murder mystery thing. If you're familiar with the author and not familiar with the plot, (a distinct possibility considering the mountain of books she's written) it really IS interesting. Some of the most important characters don't fall to the Craddock/Simmons problem. Jane Preston, for instance, makes for an entertaining Miss Marple . . . and that's probably more important than anything else to people who are the biggest fans of Agatha Christie.

"A Murder Is Announced," plays now through November 12th at the Sunset Playhouse in Elm Grove. Tickets are $16 and can be purchased by calling the ticket office at (262) 782-4430.