Theatre in the Round traditionally produces an Agatha Christie play around the holidays. The holidays of course being Thanksgiving, my Mother’s birthday and Christmas. I’ve been taking my Mother for her birthday present since 2015’s production of Black Coffee, which was also my first time to Theatre in the Rounds arena. The theatre is well suited for Christie’s mysteries which are generally speaking set in one location. A mystery played out in 360 degrees means that the audience sees everything and the director must play the game fairly. The theater is small and intimate, and these are the types of light breezy entertainments that they do well. Even from the back row, which I was seated in due to a box office snafu, one should be able to hear and see everything.
This years production is Towards Zero and it has something of an interesting backstory. Agatha Christie is the best selling fiction author of all time. Alongside her many novels and short stories she wrote 33 plays, many of them are adaptations of her novels or stories. Towards Zero was a novel first, it was adapted by Christie and Gerald Verner into a play in 1956 and that script has been produced many times over the years. But it turns out it was not the first adaptation. In 2015, discovered in the Christie archives was an earlier adaptation which Christie wrote herself, this is the script used for this production. As a Christie fan I usually find that I am familiar with the story of the plays being produced and therefore know the solution. With Towards Zero I couldn’t remember the solution and so from a script standpoint this had the added benefit of being a whodunnit that contained an actual whodunnit.
The play takes place at Gull’s Nest, the home of Lady Tressilian located on a cliff overlooking the sea. The household consists of a Butler O’Donnell, his nemesis lady Tressilians’ nurse MacGregor, and her companion Collie. Into the mix are added her ward Neville Strange, his new wife Kay and ex-wife Audrey, as well as Audrey’s childhood friend Thomas, and Kay’s boyfriend Peter De Costa. Adding a dark horse to the company is Angus McWhirter a man who a year previously tried to commit suicide by jumping from the cliff only to be foiled by an outcropping. When the murder of lady Tressilian takes place between Act 1 and Act 2 there are plenty of suspects to keep the audience guessing. Enter Inspector Leach, Sergeant Harvey, and Dr. Wilson to gather the clues and try and solve the crime.
Christie’s script is unusually long with each act running close to one and a quarter hours. It didn’t feel drawn out to me, but several of my party did feel it was too long. I felt the time was used to develop the characters and give us plenty of information with which to lead us to suspect everyone. It isn’t much of a whodunnit if there are only a couple of viable suspects. The mystery involved in Towards Zero is full of twists and red herrings enough to keep the audience second guessing up until the final reveal. Everything is up in the air including in a way who the victim and detective are. The play is directed by Wendy Resch Novak who does a good job of staging the action on the floor as well as the cliffside up at the top of one of the risers. It’s effective and creative use of the space, giving us an expanded geography that serves the play well. The set designer Laurie Swigart Does a nice job of suggesting the clifftop and the terrace of Gull’s Nest. One issue with the set though were the doors to the house they never closed all the way, not sure if this should have been a stronger direction to the actors or if it was a design flaw.
Excellent script and set design, well staged, it is in the casting and characterizations where the production stumbles slightly. Kristen C. Mathisen performance as Lady Tressilian was so good that you spend the rest of the play after her murder wishing the victim had been someone else. Mathisen brings this character to life with such humor and intelligence, she is nearly the most well rounded character in the piece despite being off stage much of the time and being killed off before Act 2 begins. Chief among the candidates to take her place as victim would be Neville Strange played by Ben Habel. Habel is not up to the task, this is a small theater and everyone I spoke with afterward had trouble hearing about half of his dialogue. This is not a large theater, if Habel isn’t able to project so that his lines can be heard, perhaps he should have been mic’d. Thankfully, that was not an issue with any of the other performers. There’s nothing like a whodunnit where you miss half the clues because you cannot hear them. Dwight Gunderson and Stacey Poirier as O’Donnell and MacGregor have a playful humor similar to Mathisen’s Tressilian, and make their warring servants a welcome bit of comedic relief whenever they are onstage together. James Degner as Dr. Wilson makes little impression, the character is woefully underwritten, he’s needed to provide some of the clues, but isn’t given much else to do, there are a few moments where you get the sense there was supposed to be a joke or witticism, but it’s lost.
The rest of the actors are well cast and do fine work but there are two roles that I want to take a closer look at. Mark L. Mattison as Angus McWhirter and Piper Quinn as Audrey. Mattison Has turned in several memorable performances at Theatre in the Round over the last few years. Here again he has found the comic timing and performance style to make his character a stand out. He mines the part for humor that may not have been intended by Christie but is certainly entertaining. He delivers his lines in a near shout throughout but is also a bit philosophical. Quinn plays her role as a woman on edge and frightened, someone in need of help. The two characters have a few scenes together which as scripted are somewhat asides to the plot. They are meant to develop a connection between the two characters, the first scene works more or less but based on where their relationship needs to go, it probably needed to cement the connection more. The second scene doesn’t build on the connection enough. That combined with Mattison’s characterization, make the last moments of the play feel forced. McWhirter is such an eccentric that it is hard to fathom the dynamic that the plot tells us has developed. There are lines in the play that lead us to that moment, but the actors don’t play it that way, creating a disconnect rather than a connection. It’s too bad, because it ends the play awkwardly and it makes you question one of the more enjoyable performances and whether that was the right direction in spite of how entertaining it was.
Towards Zero is good mystery play with some nice humor and lots of clues to keep you guessing. There are some performance issues which made the play seem long for some and one of the key relationships rang false for this reviewer. It plays through December 15th for for information and tickets go to http://www.theatreintheround.org/new-homepage/on-stage/zero/
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