Interview: Heidi Armbruster of MRS. CHRISTIE at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Creates a Delightful Contemporary Mystery from the Disappearance of the Famed Author in 1926

The playwright's imaginative, madcap mystery runs in Mountain View October 4th to 29th

By: Sep. 28, 2023
Interview: Heidi Armbruster of MRS. CHRISTIE at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Creates a Delightful Contemporary Mystery from the Disappearance of the Famed Author in 1926
Interview: Heidi Armbruster of MRS. CHRISTIE at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Creates a Delightful Contemporary Mystery from the Disappearance of the Famed Author in 1926
                         Playwright Heidi Armbruster
        (photo by Amanda Pinto - Suburban Photo)

Any Agatha Christie fan worth their salt knows that one of the most intriguing unsolved mysteries of the early 20th century was the famous author’s 11-day disappearance in 1926. No explanation was ever offered and Christie herself refused to provide any clues. Playwright Heidi Armbruster took this tantalizing enigma as the point of departure to craft her own madcap mystery, Mrs. Christie, that kicks off TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s 53rd season. The play is set almost a century later, when Christie superfan Lucy unveils a clue about the author’s highly publicized vanishing and resolves to crack the case. In parallel storylines that blend past, present and Poirot, Lucy discovers the power of finding oneself by disappearing. Mrs. Christie is directed by TheatreWorks’ recently appointed Artistic Director, Giovanna Sardelli, who previously helmed its world premiere at Dorset Theatre Festival. That production was lauded by BroadwayWorld as “sophisticated, smart, funny, heartbreaking, and hopeful. Whether you're an Agatha Christie aficionado or you just like great art, this play has the power to move you.”

Armbruster is a Wisconsin-bred, New York-based theater artist dedicated to creating new work and discovering new approaches to classical literature and theatre. A founding member and co-curator of Dorset Theater Festival’s Women Artists Writing, her other plays include Dairyland, Murder Girl, Every Good Girl Deserves Fun (and other misremembered things), Purgatory, Where the I Divides, Miss Angela’s Legitimate Home for Women Living in Sin and her solo show Scarecrow. Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival recently commissioned her to adapt Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. She is also quite an accomplished actor, having performed on Broadway in Time Stands Still as well as in works at Lincoln Center Theater, Second Stage Theater, Rattlestick Theater and Primary Stages. Her numerous TV appearances include roles on “Younger,” “Blue Bloods,” “30 Rock,” “House of Cards” and “Daredevil.”

I caught up with Armbruster by phone last week while she was in town for rehearsals. We talked about our mutual love of Agatha Christie’s novels, how she believes her play is ultimately about using your life to craft art, the lasting impact of her graduate education at A.C.T., how much fun she had playing opposite Sutton Foster on "Younger," and how misunderstood Midwesterners are. True to her roots, in conversation Armbruster is direct, down to earth, honest and wryly humorous. The following has been condensed and edited for clarity.  

I grew up a big Agatha Christie fan. My grandmother had dozens of her books laying around her house so I was always reading them. Given that you decided to write a play about her, is it fair to assume you’re an Agatha Christie fan yourself?

I am a very devoted fan. Many of us read And Then There Were None in middle school, and then I got really into the book and I think strung some Cabbage Patch Kids over the railing and filmed it for a class project, and that sort of became the gateway drug. [laughs] But there was a long stretch of my life where I didn’t read them and sort of dismissed them as for middle school students and old ladies, and I read around Agatha Christie, like I read a lot of the other Golden Age writers - Ngaio Marsh, Marjorie Allingham, Josephine Tey and Dorothy Sayers.

Then I was doing a play and I had a really long break between entrances and I had just bought a NOOK (I think it must have been) and one of the Agatha Christie novels came pre-loaded on that, you know, fancy new device. So I sat backstage in between my entrances and read that book and I was like “Omigod! This is good. I forgot.” And then the piece that becomes sort of autobiographical and relevant, particularly with this story, is that that had happened really recently after my mother had passed away. I found that the Agatha Christie books were accessible and plot-driven, these chaotic puzzles that then resolved in this incredibly satisfying order. And a chapter was about as long as my subway ride, so she was just a really good friend during that period of despair.

Christie’s disappearance has always fascinated me and it remains such an intriguing mystery. How did you go about transforming that into a piece of theater?

I rediscovered it, sort of lit on it, when I was 37. Agatha Christie was 37 when she disappeared and it was right after the passing of her mother. So I think I felt that sort of thread across time pulling me towards that story. As a reader I really dove into some of the biographies that have been written around the disappearance, and this story began to emerge about a woman a hundred years in the future looking back at Agatha’s disappearance and using that to solve some mystery of her life.

I spoke with your director, Giovanna Sardelli, recently and she rather intriguingly described Mrs. Christie as “sexy” and also “not your grandmother’s Agatha Christie, but she’ll enjoy it as much as you will.” Does that sound about right to you?

Ooh, I think it does! [laughs] I’m an actress, right, and I’m a theatergoer and I’m a reader. So I feel like I have written something that I would want to be in and that I would want to see on the stage.

I think this is the kind of thing where you like bring your book club. You all share a bottle of wine and then you come to the theater. But you can also bring your husband and he’s not gonna be mad at you. [laughs] I think Christie fans are gonna love it, and there’s Easter eggs sort of scattered throughout that fans will I think appreciate, but if you have no knowledge of Agatha Christie, it’s still a world that you have access to. Nicole Javier who plays Lucy, the contemporary character, is just such a gifted and likable actress and I think she’s sort of the audience’s way into and through this story, so a contemporary lens is sort of built into this particular play.

How has it been working with Giovanna as your director on Mrs. Christie?

Well, we worked on this play together in 2019 at Dorset Theatre Festival. Our good friend Dina Janis was the artistic director at that time and she introduced the two of us. Gio’s just a delight to work with. She creates space for everybody to bring their personal lives into the rehearsal room and to use that to craft the art. And I think at the end that is sort of what this play is about. It’s how you use your life to make art, for better or worse, and in good times and bad that art is a lifeline.

This cast is all from the Bay Area, so everybody in this rehearsal room is coming from their home to work, which is different than like being jobbed in from New York City and living in artist housing. All of these actors are bringing their experience with their families and their lives and their community into the room, into the rehearsal process. I think theater should reflect on its stages the people who are in its audiences, and one of the very exciting things about this is literally the audience and the actors on that stage are neighbors, and so their experience is reflected.

TheatreWorks, like virtually every other regional theater in the country right now, is facing significant challenges as it struggles to recover from the pandemic. As a working playwright, can you speak to the importance of regional theaters in your ability to do your job?

Again, going back to this hyper-regional theater where the audiences are watching their neighbors onstage, there’s something about theaters not being afraid to reflect the stories of their audiences, or the experiences of the communities back to the people in their region. And I went to A.C.T., so there’s something about coming back to the Bay Area that feels like a kind of a homecoming. It’s really meaningful to be back in this part of the world to get to do this play about making art.

You earned your MFA in Acting from A.C.T. When you look back on that experience, how helpful was it for the career you’re actually having?

Oh, life changing! I’m from Madison, Wisconsin and I came to A.C.T. right out of undergrad, and it shaped me into an artist. I really thought in those years that I was probably gonna go to law school eventually. I had never actually met a professional actor, an artist who made it their living, and I had this sort of mythology it was feast or famine, like celebrities or starving artists. I didn’t understand about the working middle class of artists and artisans. I was a work-study student so for my work-study job I bartended and ushered at the Geary Theatre. I would spend my weekends at that jewel box of a theater seeing the plays multiple times, meeting the artists that were local, that were in from New York, and starting to understand like “Oh, these people have partners, they have apartments, they have careers. Some of them are famous, but some of them aren’t. This is a viable path through life. An artist is something that you can be.” The permission that I was given at A.C.T. to dream of a life in the arts was utterly life changing.

Right, it’s not like you have to either be a famous movie star or a starving artist and there’s nothing in between.

Totally! There’s so much in between. And again I think that goes back to regional artists, too. Like I’m working here with a group of eight of those artists, who are in that middle class working artist space. We have artists in our neighborhood, like our neighbors are artists, and isn’t that great that we can live in a place that is made more vibrant because the community is supporting in and engaging in this great art?

You’re also an actress with tons of stage and screen credits. Among them was a recurring role on the TV series Younger, which is one of my favorite shows of the last several years. It was one of those shows that really helped get me through the pandemic, you know?

Oh, that’s awesome!

You played Michelle, an old friend of Sutton Foster’s Liza and the link to her secret past as a New Jersey mom. I just rewatched the “Truffle Butter” episode, and I thought the scene between you and Sutton Foster in the kitchen was so well played! You just perfectly hit that balance between being her truth-telling friend and also being envious that Liza has a hot new boy toy.

Oh, yeah, Michelle was so into that boyfriend! I haven’t thought about that scene in so long, but I remember shooting it late at night in some weird house in Westchester. It felt like a lot of Michelle’s stuff pretty much got shot between 1:30 and 3:30 in the morning. [laughs] Everybody sort of wanted to go home, so you had like two takes to get it right or people were gonna be pissed, you know?

When you’re a guest actor coming in for two or three episodes a season, how do you quickly establish that connection, that rapport, with the star of the show?

Because Sutton Foster. She made it incredibly easy. Seriously, doesn’t she seem like she’s someone it would be great to say something nasty about cause she’s so perfect? But she just actually is that gracious and that lovely and that inspiring and that generous, so she made being in that space incredibly comfortable. And I feel like she liked the parts where she got to explore the 40-year-old side of Liza. That was a really fun job.

You seem to be one of a sort of cohort of feminist actor-playwrights of a roughly similar age – like I recently interviewed Jessica Dickey, and I just saw that Heidi Schreck has a new Chekhov adaptation opening on Broadway in the spring. Do you women all happen to know each other?

The idea that you have put me in a cohort with Jessica Dickey and Heidi Schreck is incredibly meaningful to me. That’s gonna light my fire for this rehearsal day! Yeah, I’ve known both of those women for decades(?), and we’ve been in each other’s circles of actresses. I first met Heidi Schreck in a waiting room for an audition, probably fifteen or twenty years ago. And Jessica Dickey, we were actresses at the New Harmony Project when both of us were starting to just explore what it would be like to be a writer ourselves.

Were you ever up for the same roles?

Oh, definitely! We were absolutely sitting in a waiting room to audition for the same parts. And that I will say is something I miss about this post-pandemic actor’s universe. Jessie Dickey, Heidi Schreck and Heidi Armbruster would all be sitting in a room together, waiting to audition for, you know, whatever was coming up at Playwrights Horizons, and we would get to sort of hang out and maybe go have a coffee afterwards or ride the train together back home, whatever it was. That sort of community is different now with the advent of a lot more self-taping. I think some of that in-person stuff is starting to come back and there is definitely a community that is and was established in those waiting rooms.

I’m thrilled that you’re all finding success as playwrights, but I think you’re all really wonderful actors, too.

Yeah, I just rewatched [Heidi Schreck in her play] What the Constitution Means to Me on Amazon, and I was like “Omigosh, she’s such a good actress!” They’re both really good actresses, but really wonderful writers. It’s kind of nice, too, that the writing gets preserved, like we’ll have access to Jessie Dickey and Heidi Schreck for a long, long time. The theater can’t capture a performance in that same way.

Do you have anything else currently in the pipeline?

Oh, yeah! I’ve done an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and I have my own murder mystery called Murder Girl, which is sort of making the rounds. And then I just keep writing about Wisconsin, too. My next Wisconsin play is Scarecrow.

Well, I’m originally from Iowa and as a fellow Midwesterner that sounds wonderful to me because I feel like the Midwest is so misunderstood.

I think so, too. Like we’re not stupid, we’re just friendly. [laughs]

Exactly! That’s such a succinct way to put it - and so true.

Murder Girl takes place in the Midwest, it’s a murder mystery that’s set at a Wisconsin supper club. Are you familiar with supper clubs?

Only vaguely, because my family wasn’t very social.

Well, it sounds clubbier than it is. It’s really just a fancy name for a bar that serves food, but the big thing in Wisconsin of course is Friday Night Fish Fry, so you go and you get your beer-battered cod and you get your hash browns and rye bread and cole slaw, and drink a Brandy Old-Fashioned. And that’s your Friday night. Murder Girl is set in one of these rural bars that is run by a family who’s haunted by a murder from many years prior. So my fascination with dead bodies continues. [laughs]

(Header photo is by Joey Moro of the Dorset Theatre Festival production of Mrs. Christie.)


Mrs. Christie will be presented October 4-29, 2023 at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View, CA. For tickets and more information, visit or call (877)-662-8978.

BroadwayWorld Awards Voting

RELATED STORIES - San Francisco / Bay Area

Review: RUTHLESS at New Conservatory Theatre Center Photo
Review: RUTHLESS at New Conservatory Theatre Center

What did our critic think of RUTHLESS at New Conservatory Theatre Center?

Season of Black Art & San Francisco Black Film Festival Celebrate Black Film & The Photo
Season of Black Art & San Francisco Black Film Festival Celebrate Black Film & Theatre with EXPRESS YOURSELF

'Season of Black Art' and the San Francisco Black Film Festival celebrates black film and theater on December 9.

DEAR SAN FRANCISCO Releases New block of Tickets for 2024 Photo
DEAR SAN FRANCISCO Releases New block of Tickets for 2024

A new block of tickets are now on sale for  Dear San Francisco performances from Friday, February 9 through Sunday, June 2, 2024.

High Stakes Environmental Drama QUEEN to be Presented at TheatreWorks in March Photo
High Stakes Environmental Drama QUEEN to be Presented at TheatreWorks in March

Discover the high stakes environmental drama 'Queen' coming to TheatreWorks in March. Written by Madhuri Shekar and directed by Miriam A. Laube, this engaging play follows two Ph.D. candidates as they research the collapse of bee colonies and debate the consequences of their findings.


The Glass Menagerie in San Francisco / Bay Area The Glass Menagerie
San Francisco Playhouse (5/02-6/15)
Tommy T’s Comedy Showcase in San Francisco / Bay Area Tommy T’s Comedy Showcase
Tommy T's Comedy House (11/14-12/31)
MANAHATTA in San Francisco / Bay Area MANAHATTA
Aurora Theatre Company (2/09-3/10)
Emigres & Exiles in Hollywood: The Album in San Francisco / Bay Area Emigres & Exiles in Hollywood: The Album
Berkeley Piano Club (6/15-6/15)
Ken Ludwig's The Game's Afoot in San Francisco / Bay Area Ken Ludwig's The Game's Afoot
City Lights Theater Company (11/16-12/17)
Smuin's The Christmas Ballet - San Francisco in San Francisco / Bay Area Smuin's The Christmas Ballet - San Francisco
Blue Shield of California Theater at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (12/14-12/24)
Richard O'Brien's The Rocky Horror Show in San Francisco / Bay Area Richard O'Brien's The Rocky Horror Show
City Lights Theater Company (7/18-8/25)
Dragon Lady in San Francisco / Bay Area Dragon Lady
Marin Theatre Company (11/24-12/17)
To Kill a Mockingbird in San Francisco / Bay Area To Kill a Mockingbird
Golden Gate Theatre (12/12-12/17)
Forever Plaid in San Francisco / Bay Area Forever Plaid
The Gateway Theatre (4/18-5/05)

Recommended For You