For its 2019 season, Dorset Theatre Festival is combining two of its specialties, new theater and Agatha Christie — in one play, the world premiere of Heidi Armbruster’s comedy, “Mrs. Christie.”
“One actress who did a reading of it in New York described it as drinking a fabulous champagne,” explains Dina Janis, the renowned professional theater’s artistic director of seven years. “It has all of the fabulous characters of Agatha, and Agatha herself, and her muses, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, all the wonderful tropes of Agatha Christie’s works.
“It’s really an exciting piece, and for us it’s a step forward in really being able to take something we’ve developed from the get-go,” Janis said by phone.
But that won’t be the only premiere. Theresa Rebeck, the theater’s resident playwright who splits her time between Vermont and Broadway, gets serious in her new “Dig.” And the season closes with pure comedy, Wendy McLeod’s new “Slow Food.”
The season opens, however, with classic comedy, one of the greats. In Noël Coward’s 1930 comedy of manners “Private Lives” (June 20-July 6), Elyot and Amanda, once married and now honeymooning with new spouses at the same hotel, meet by chance.
“I just think the writing, you just can’t beat it,” Janis said. “Actors love it.”
However, not everybody’s good at it.
“The timing and the language require a lot of understanding how to get that to lift off the page in the right way,” she said. “But it’s just fabulous and fun.”
In Rebeck’s new “Dig” (July 11-27), a dying plant shop in a dying urban neighborhood receives a visitor from the past: Meghan, the neighborhood screw-up, whose suicide attempt followed a terrible tragedy.
“It’s a very interesting piece for Theresa, very personal,” Janis said. “It’s a play that looks at some philosophical, spiritual questions of redemption, for one.”
Rebeck (Broadway’s 2018 “Bernhardt/Hamlet”) has developed more than six productions at Dorset that have gone on to other stages around the country, including 2017’s “Downstairs” starring Tim Daly and Tyne Daly, which ran off-Broadway at Primary Stages in fall 2018.
“It’s different,” Janis said of “Dig.” “The thing about Theresa is that she can be chameleon-like. She’ll go from ‘Way of the World,’ to ‘The Scene’ to ‘The Novelist’ (all produced at Dorset). She’s incredibly bright and very curious.”
Armbruster has been working on “Mrs. Christie” (Aug. 1-17) in Dorset Theatre Festival’s Women Artists Writing Group since 2015. In 1926 Christie mysteriously disappeared. Ten days later, the 37-year-old wife and mother who dabbled in detective fiction was found at a posh seaside resort having checked in under the name of her husband’s mistress. Christie walked out of that hotel ready to become the icon we regard her as today, but why did she disappear?
Armbruster’s classic new comedy imagines Christie as she’s never been seen before. While attending a convention for mystery aficionados at Christie’s homestead, Lucy puts together clues that lead her to the truth of Christie’s mysterious 11-day disappearance. Sometimes a woman needs to disappear in order to find herself.
“What you have is this heightened language, very funny, really engaging, especially for people who love that genre,” Janis said.
Several theaters have already committed to producing the play after the Dorset run.
“We’re the perfect theater to put this play on its feet for the first time,” Janis said. “For decades we’ve had an Agatha Christie-loyal audience base. So I think it’s going to be really fun for our audiences.”
Wendy MacLeod’s “Slow Food” (Aug. 22-31) premiered earlier this year at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, Massachusetts.
“I was looking for something that was just really, truly funny,” Janis said. “This play is incredibly funny in an intelligent way. I think it’s going to take off.”
Irene and Peter just want to have a nice meal out on their big anniversary in Palm Springs. But their highly neurotic waiter will not bring them their food, and everything goes horribly, ridiculously wrong.
“It’s really like a Harvey Corman-Carol Burnett comedy,” Janis said. “They just cannot get food out of the kitchen. Their marriage ends, it gets together again, a lifetime occurs in the course of this dinner.
“It’s brilliantly written — and an incredibly fun piece for actors.”
/ jim.lowe @rutlandherald.com