After going through the long Midwest winters, Park Square Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota has made a tradition of offering suspenseful family entertainment in the summer months. They recently concluded a successful run of Rule of Thumb by Agatha Christie, one of the most-read mystery writers of all time. I chatted with one of the actors from Rule of Thumb (and my former college roommate), Neal Beckman, about the play and the production.
At its core, what is Rule of Thumb about?
Rule of Thumb is a collection of three Agatha Christie one-acts. The Rats is a sultry murder-mystery that focuses on infidelity and keeping up appearances. In the second act, a medical experiment on a paralyzed woman has an extended family turning on itself in The Patient. The last feature of the triple bill is The Wasp’s Nest, one of the few Agatha Christie plays that features Hercule Poirot, as he works to unravel a poisoning yet to take place. Each act is written for a different time and place: The Rats set in a modern London flat in the 1950s, The Patient in a sterile hospital ward in the 1930s, and The Wasp’s Nest in an open garden on a wealthy man’s private estate in the 1920s.
It’s amazing to see three one-acts complement each other.
The variety between the Rule of Thumb pieces means no one leaves without a favorite murder to unravel and with Christie’s sharp turns in plot points, one can never get very far ahead of the story. With three separate pieces, the suspense hangs in the air throughout – plus there’s the delight of seeing the same actors play contrasting characters in different plays.
How would you describe Agatha Christie’s writing?
The writing of each world speaks to a different style. The writing for The Rats is hot and edgy, The Patient had a surprising amount of comedy in the writing and was a delight to perform, and in the cerebral Wasp’s Nest you see the inner workings of Hercule Poirot’s powers of observation making subtle interactions hugely important.
What can you say about the characters you portray, Inspector Cray in The Patient and Charles Harborough in The Wasp’s Nest?
Inspector Cray was a challenge to find as a character. He generally doesn’t drive the investigation much at all and hands the reins over the patient’s doctor, yet he’s the one at the end who puts all of the pieces together. The trick was to keep him from fading away and to use his quiet presence to keep the pressure on those being interrogated. Playing Charles Harborough was a game of subtlety. There’s so many different things at work in him emotionally and behaviorally, but his upbringing doesn’t allow him to show any of them. So finding the rare glimpses where they could surface was an exciting challenge for our director, Austene Van, and I to work through.
Sounds like a very nice challenge! Which part of the triptych did you enjoy performing the most?
The most enjoyable to perform in was The Patient easily. The other actors created brilliantly crafted, outrageous characters to respond to – that was amazing every night. There were plenty of times when the audience’s laughter had us near breaking character.
Why do you think Agatha Christie’s mysteries are so theatrical?
Agatha Christie’s mysteries work because even walking into the theatre you know the stakes will be life and death for the characters – it’s just a matter of figuring out who and how. So the success of Christie is that the audience can never get far ahead of her and there are a handful of details that lead down false paths. Frequently a crucial piece of evidence will show up moments before it all unravels and the audience gets the thrill of retroactively seeing all the important clues fall miraculously into place.
And what makes Agatha Christie’s mysteries click with audiences today?
Part of the reason they work so successfully is that a lot of what we watch today in the way of murder mysteries is inflexible. I think of Law & Order where the cast and setting remain the same while the murder keeps changing seems somewhat inflexible. With Agatha Christie everyone is a suspect and the writing can take you anywhere.
How did the Twin Cities audience respond to your summer mystery production? Are there any moments that get a different reaction at every performance?
The audiences responded very well to the production. Each audience clearly had a favorite and so you could tell which they cared for best depending on what elements they responded to. The experiment in The Patient was when we knew what mood they were in. The doctor simply goes through the letters of the alphabet and sometimes the whole sequence was filled with laughter.
Are there any other Agatha Christie roles you’d like to play?
I’m a fan of the Ms. Marple movies. I have yet to see a play that includes Ms. Marple, but I’d like to be a part of it. Down the road it would always be fun to have my own take on Poirot, but I’m in no rush.
I’m eager to see which Agatha Christie role you’d take on next. Do you have anything else to add?
Rule of Thumb was a really fun project to be a part of. You get to go back and forth between seeming innocence and guilt and it gives a great deal of freedom of behavior. I look forward to doing a lot more summer mysteries.
(Photo: Petronella J. Ytsma. Park Square Theatre’s 2019 production of Agatha Christie’s Rule of Thumb, featuring Neal Beckman and Bob Davis.)
Neal Beckman is a Twin Cities-based actor. He helps run The Actor’s Workout at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. He received the 2016 Lavender Magazine Award for Superlative Performance in Julius Caesar and the 2012 Ivey Award for Overall Excellence, Production in Compleat Stage Beauty with Walking Shadow Theatre Company. He will soon return to the Park Square stage in Kate Hamill’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, directed by Lisa Channer. He trained at Fordham University in New York City.