And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. Directed by David Bunce.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Photo: Tim Raab Northern Photo
Photo: Tim Raab Northern Photo
"I couldnít know he was going to die, could I?"
The question most asked in Agatha Christieís first play, based on her own serialized novel written in 1939, is answered simply with a nod, the word "yes" and a simple shudder felt round the world. By the time the question is finally put into words, spoken aloud, it has been asked by everyone on stage at least once, if not half a dozen more times.
Here is the premise of the play: ten people have been invited to a house party on a deserted island and they are told that each of them has committed a heinous crime and will pay for it with their own death before the weekend is over. Each person denies his or her villainy, but one by one, in imitation of the childrenís rhyme of "Ten Little Soldiers (or Indians)," they pay the price. Who says crime doesnít pay? Not Agatha Christie. She makes it pay right up to the final moments of this very theatrical event.
On stage in Troy, New York the NYSTI troupe is bringing this play about death to life. It has been filmed at least three times, usually with stellar casts and this time the leading lights of the New York State Theatre Institute are taking on the roles of the doomed. On an innovative set, in perfectly wonderful costumes and under the best (albeit sometimes questionable) lights this group of players is sending chills up and down the spines of audiences. Even if you know the secrets in the play, which I do, the performances here are something special and the old play works better than a new thriller might. I suggest you take advantage of its presence to reaffirm your belief in theater in general, Christie in particular, and the fine work being done by this specific organization.
Mary Jane Hansen looks lovely in Robert Antonís stunningly beautiful costumes and she acts the pants off of Vera Claythorne, the new secretary hired for the party. Is she guilty of child murder? Will she die by her own hand or by the actions of a madman? She knows how to keep her secrets in the most antagonizing manner. There is nothing tentative about her Vera. She acts as she must act, does what she must do? Is she the villain who has planned the deaths of so many others? She certainly could be as she moves about the stage calming everyone, frightening everyone. Her performance is the key to the mysteryís success.
David Girard makes the most of his role as Anthony Marston, the playboy with the funny voice and regionalisms. Girard adds a fine characterization to his growing roster of unusual parts. John Romeo, as the slightly dotty General Mackenzie, flirts with a Scottish accent and fragile mind-set, waiting for the imminent death that takes us all. He is at his most believable in this role and his scenes are unforgettable.
Ron Komora is a marvelous Sir Lawrence Wargrave and John McGuire wrings the moisture out of Dr. Armstrong. These two men are among the most reliable character actors in this resident company and they turn in solid performances here. Playing the two most solid professional men, a judge and a physician, they bring a different sense of reality into the show. It is hard to imagine two men more suitably cast than these two.
Carole Edie Smith is the disgruntled and unpleasant Emily Brent. Her accent is insecure and her character becomes the hardest to believe in, but this also sets a certain imagined incredulity into play as the identity of the true killer begins to be revealed. Eileen Schuyler as the cook turns in a performance that is just right.
Joe Quandt plays her shifty husband, Rogers, to a tee and in the brief role of Fred Narracott, Richard Harte was just about right.
Joel Aroeste takes on one of the strongest, best defined roles in the play, after Vera Claythorne. He is William Blore, the only character who arrives in disguise and who, quite naturally, becomes the principal suspect...for a while which is when the real fun of discovery begins. Aroeste plays every subtle change in his characterís character to perfection. In a play which pushes the role of vengeance killing to the extreme, this actor pushes his own limits as well.
The other strong character in this trilogy of death-throes is Philip Lombard, played here by Tim Dugan who is new to the company. Almost the romantic lead in this non-romance, Dugan makes love, not war, then war-time romance, then adds the chill of uncertainty to this romantic mixture. His smooth manners and his excellent timing are added value to this stock company of players and his scenes with Hansen are lovely to watch and hear.
John McLain has created sensational atmospheres - day and night - sun and storm - to the stage pictures. There are a few things questionable in his design: the spotlighting of characters as their crimes are announced seemed forced, artificial and led to expectations that could not be realized ever again. His blackout of the room was not credible with a fire in the fireplace that could not have been extinguished and re-established in the way they were.
Ken Goldsteinís set, without the mountain vista behind it, felt created and not creative, but it was the most innovative and enthralling space in which Iíve ever seen this play performed. Almost a character itself, it worked brilliantly until the locking of a door became important and then the door never closed.
Robert Antonís costumes were brilliantly right for each character. Will Severinís gloomy and atmospheric music worked to perfection.
David Bunce, a wonderful actor with this company, directed this play - his first major step in this direction for NYSTI. With the exception of one moment which felt false as Dr. Armstrong reacted softly, without moving, as he denied his guilt, Bunce never gave his actors a false step. He used misdirection when necessary quite brilliantly and he clearly aided his company into their fine performances. He maintained natural, yet attractive and theatrical, stage pictures and as his company became reduced in size he maintained this artistic sense.
This mystery play will be playing in Troy through the 12th of February. There is still time to get to it before it dies a lonely and untimely death. Donít let it go off this stage alone.
And Then There Were None plays at the Schacht Fine Arts Center, 5 Division Street, on the campus of Russell Sage College in Troy, New York, through February 12. For information and tickets call 518-274-3256.