“…Oh, yes. I've no doubt in my own mind that we have been invited here by a madman—probably a dangerous homicidal lunatic.”
Ten strangers are summoned to a remote island. All that the guests have in common are wicked secrets they're unwilling to reveal that will seal their fate. For each has been marked for murder. This is Agatha Christie at her best: "And Then There Were None," a gripping confection featuring all the most reliable hallmarks of Christie’s brand, playing now at Morgan-Wixson Theatre in Santa Monica through May 26th.
On stage, we find the slightly waggish Mr. and Mrs. Rogers (Jack Stroud and Jill Tenney), parlor man and cook, busying themselves in opening the old manor house in anticipation of the important guests they were told to expect—a scene that lends some comic relief initially, seducing the audience into a false sense of complacency. Soon after, each of the guests begin to arrive, trooping in from the unseen boat manned by Fred Narracott (Jack Eld) that carried them to the island.
As the throng of archetypes settle into their rooms at the isolated Devonian crag – crusty old gents, prim ladies and raffish young bucks, we immediately find that one of them, Philip Lombard (Ken Korpi), is a cynical mercenary, but no less given to smoldering. Plus there’s a shady chap, a self-appointed greeter named William Henry Blore (Aric Martin), who is later exposed as a charlatan. Mingling in the mix also was the most overtly odious, specifically an Adonis swaggering playboy called Anthony Marston (also played expertly by Jack Eld), with a risqué taste for cocaine and sports cars.
It turns out to be a farewell party, for they all have been sentenced to die for crimes in their past by a self-appointed judge, jury, and executioner, who may be one of them. Nothing sends a dinner party downhill faster than an accusation of murder. So imagine the chaos that erupts when a disembodied voice—thundering from everywhere and nowhere at once—lays out not one but ten charges of unlawful, unpunished killing. The guests then assemble in the drawing room in starch-lipped dialogue over cocktails in an attempt to make sense of that ethereal edict before embarking on the orderly business of dropping like flies. Ten occupants in all, including the servants—in fact, there is no one else on the island, now that Mr. Narracott has left.
Regarding the hosts – a Mr. and Mrs. U.N. Owen, there was no sign of them. And almost before the terrified, defensive guests can stammer how they’re all completely innocent, someone suddenly passes out. One figurine tumbles. A drug overdose or something more suspicious? As the weather turns and the group is cut off from the mainland, the guests are systematically dispatched one by one in the manner described in the lyrics of a sinister children's rhyme the voice described over the gramophone, while the survivors nervously eye one another, splintering into tenuous alliances until the next murder throws shadows on someone new.
Framed and hung so that all might see, the sanitized ditty warns each guest that they might be next. “Ten little soldiers standing in a line…” But who could be the culprit performing such atrocities? Could it be Larry Gesling’s three-piece suit superannuated judge, Sir Lawrence Wargrave, or perhaps Michael Bernstein’s aging General Mackenzie, Lauren Holiday’s haughty, cold-hearted missionary Emily Brent, or maybe Will Craig’s irascible, but shy, surgeon, Dr. Armstrong? And are their crimes so grievous that it requires this kind of retaliation? But all have been complicit in the deaths of other people.
“I have a strong suspicion our hosts are inclined to whimsy,” deduced Mr. Korpi’s shady oppressor, who as a colonial enforcer had 21 victims to his name with no regrets. And, Mr. Martin’s William Henry Blore, a corrupt police inspector, framed a man named Landor at the behest of a criminal gang. The flamboyant sparring of Mr. Martin and Mr. Korpi’s characters is almost a play in itself, and Mr. Stroud's deadpan drollery, sided with his hilariously flippant wife, Mrs. Rogers (Jill Tenney), is to die for. But even such light-hearted humor cannot let these two off the hook. The recording accuses Rogers and his wife of letting their former employer die because they stood to inherit money from her.
Vera Claythorne, a former governess who comes to the island purportedly to serve as a secretary to Mrs. Owen, wants to escape a past in which she killed a small boy in her care so that the man she loved would inherit Cyril’s estate. Although the coroner cleared her of blame, Vera’s lover abandoned her, and she is secretly in depression. The good Dr. Armstrong looks passive enough, but often draws the suspicion of the other guests because of his medical knowledge. He is a recovering alcoholic who once accidentally killed a patient by operating on her while drunk.
The playboy Marston gruesomely killed two small children in a car accident caused by his speeding, and never looked back. Another guest, a ruthless, self-righteous woman named Emily Brent, is accused of killing her servant, Beatrice, upon learning she was pregnant out of wedlock. And then there’s General Macarthur, now almost senile with a death-wish, who is accused of sending his lieutenant, Arthur Richmond, to his death during World War I, because Richmond was his wife’s lover.
Leaning as much towards psychological thriller as much as a teasing murder mystery, every character is haunted by visions of gruesome deaths – children drowned or run over, an old woman smothered in her bed. No one is quite as innocent as they claim. One by one, the figurines disappear, the skies glow with a genuine sense of threat, the thunder growls as the storm adds to the suspense, and with assured direction by Michael Thomas-Visgar, the riveting play rattles along like an on-time train.
In this nonpareil Agatha Christie's mystery, the real secret host is Christie herself—a master of suspense and a keen expert on the darker shades of human nature. Set in 1939, when the whole world seemed to be on the edge of apocalyptic war, Agatha reflects a changing morality, infusing a modern sensibility.
The story’s most compelling character, Lombard, the adventurer/gun-for-hire, eventually owns up to the charge of murder. Yes, he says, he did kill an entire village of African natives, but according to his account —out of self-preservation, to obtain food and supplies for his expedition. In reality, he did so as a Colonial usurper, conquering the village with firepower. But when confronted by Ms. Holiday's mean-spirited, scripture-quoting charity worker, he sneers her religion as being as big of a killer in Africa as the gun.
Meanwhile, the victims generally die with taste and decorum. Several who kick the bucket have the courtesy to do so offstage. In the process, Christie doesn’t bludgeon the audience over the head with blunt thrills, gore and sensationalism in order to achieve the end result, although the production gains a tasty, headlong momentum on into the second act.
But there are a number of moments of candor. We are clearly permitted to laugh when Mr. Rogers, the morning after his wife's murder, politely asks: "Is there anything more I can get you?" And, as the corpses pile up, the concern with the catering supplies leads someone gratuitously to inquire: "Is there really only tongue?"
But, having licensed our laughter, Morgan-Wixson’s production quickly stifles it. It reminds us that Christie's play uncannily anticipates this well-heeled group of people, all with a death on their conscience, to be brought to account. In short, Christie suggests that the piece is at heart a moral fable about retribution. And, even if the methods are inherently improbable, the production maintains a wonderful, gripping hold on the viewer.
Director Thomas-Visgar brings admirable clarity to the play, with a sense of dramatic pacing that is particularly effective. The play grows in intensity and passion as it progresses toward its agreeably surprising conclusion. Each player sheds their true personas, wearing their character as comfortably as a second skin. Exceptional portrayals included Aric Martin as the obnoxious police officer Blore, Larry Gesling as the pillar of the courts, Wargrave, and Will Craig as the very nervous “nerve” doctor.
Adding another level of intrigue is Mr. Elb playing the playboy Marston, a smooth customer with a hot temper, who’s arrival creates a quasi-love triangle as both Phillip and Marston vie for the attention of Vera while the fanatically pious Emily Brent scolds them in a perfectly passive way. Ms. Holiday brings delicious venom to the self-righteous prig, making her character one you love to hate. Ms. Eleftheriadis’ poised, assertive ingénue, Vera, also was a center key player in her red cocktail piece, and drew the action to her, while Mr. Bernstein’s resignation to his fate personified General Mackenzie befittingly. Jill Tenney’s feisty, sharp-tongued Mrs. Rogers was a treat, and Mr. Stroud, as her phlegmatic husband, was top-drawer.
Paul Dufresne’s scenic design is splendid and opulent. Contributing to that is Julia Lisa’s first-rate costume design which emphasizes how a simple set of clothing can divulge character. William Wilday’s spectacular sound effects, lighting design and technical direction was superb, as usual, enhancing a surreal mood of doom. The production is stage managed expertly by Milton David.
Larry Gesling is Producer.
Murder—it’s a messy business. And the polished actors, just as gripping, relish the stereotypical characters they play. Lightning flashes and thunder peals, while candlelight ominously lights up the faces of those not yet dead, eliciting vivid characterizations. There is quite a bit of stiff-upper-lip Englishness, but they never play down to the material, paying their respects to the great Dame.
As a playwright of disarming, genteel mayhem, Miss Christie knew just what she was doing. This stage mystery is like being tucked under a soft old comforter, safe and warm, while others are stabbed, shot and poisoned at the foot of the bed. The horrors of life get put in their place, neat and in a row, and we wake up feeling satisfied that the wicked gets punished and the sort-of good people get their reward. It's not life in any conceivable sense, but it's very fine theater — perfectly spun with a delicious, intriguing premise.
“And Then There Were None” closes on May 26th, with only three more performances left: May 24th and 25th at 8pm, and a final matinee on Sunday, May 26th at 2pm. Catch it while you can! One of the best dramas I’ve seen this year! Very Highly Recommended! Tickets may be purchased online at: https://www.morgan-wixson.org/then-there-were-none
The Show Report
Photo Credit: JDCPHOTOGRAPHY