Towards Zero by Agatha Christie. Directed by Chris Briante. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
". . .with all the causes and events that bring certain people to a certain place at a certain time on a certain day. . . Zero hour."
It's that certain time again, the point in the theatrical year always marked by the annual murder mystery play - the Agatha Christie if you're lucky - at the Theater Barn in New Lebanon, NY. This year it is Christie: Towards Zero, adapted from her 1944 novel with a few changes but the basics all in place. In her bedroom at her seaside estate Lady Camilla Tressilian is murdered one night not long after a "family" dinner attended by her adopted son, Neville Strange, his wife Kay Strange and his ex-wife Audrey Strange, their friend Ted Latimer, Neville's old school chum Thomas Royde just back from Malaya and Matthew Treves, the family lawyer. Odd how many Stranges there are; strange how many oddities occur.
Like most Christie murder mysteries there are twists, unexpected drops of information and more than one detective detecting the directions taken by every possible destroyer. The joys of these pieces are the almost unbelievable possibilities explored as one after another the truths and motives are unveiled. In this play the addition of a concept of when the murder really takes place makes the ending explainable and yet surprising. The cast and crew at the Theater Barn present all of this with a plain, even hand and a sensible sense of purpose. The result is very good theater. Very good indeed.
Andrew Colford plays Nevile Strange, tennis pro, golfer, married to the beautiful if ill-tempered Kay. Colford is cool as a cucumber as his secrets are unveiled and his honesty is impuned through the laying false clues. Colford always plays the moment, not the past or the future, and he gets away with harboring secrets as well as any man can. As the first suspect in his adopted mother's death, he is convincingly innocent even in the face of much material pointing otherwise.
Morgan Troia plays his new wife with all of the impatience of the easily insulted. Troia defines Kay with petulance and her prettiness wears on us quickly for it is Kay's aggravating personality that dominates here and Troia makes every dark aspect of that telling. Just the opposite is the cold, almost calculating appearance of Strange's first wife, Audry, played with emotionless reactions by Katrina Klein. Hers is an equally difficult character to interpret and she is sometimes chilling as she moves through crowds and through harsh moments with a patient and deliberate manner that tells nothing but seems to indicate a great many things we don't want to acknowledge.
Toby Wherry has a manner that bring with it suspicion. He plays the unspoken motives in Royde with finesse. Joan Coombs as the victim - or is she the victim - is marvelous playing a woman of power and wealth who cannot conceal her baser instincts, insignificant though they may be. She is so good at this that when her murder is announced we are actually sorry not to have her on stage with us any more.
Kyle McIlhone and Fleece play two others caught up in the mystery and death of the play. They are both excellent doing what they do. The police in this play are brought to us through the work of Phil Rice as Superintendent Battle, Andrew Pace as Inspector Leach and Matthew McFadden as PC Benson. Rice could not be any better as Battle. He is determined and astute and watching him make mistaken assumptions is a delight. Pace is a fine Leach, young over-confident and almost cocky. McFadden does well with his role.
In this Christie play the true detective is the lawyer played by John M. Trainor. He is fine, if on occasion hesitant, in this role and as he moves closer to truly solving the crime he becomes overly compelling. It's hard not to watch him as his thoughts transform his facial expressions.
I cannot reveal much more than I have. What's the fun in watching a mystery if someone tells you the answers to all of the questions that should occur to you as you watch. I will tell you, however, that Abe Phelps set works very well and Allen Phelps lighting is perfectly in keeping with the mood of the play. Alison Gensmer's costumes tell us a lot about the character's wearing them and that's really good. Director Chris Briante has woven all of the elements into whole cloth and the show has a nice momentum in spite of some over-writing in Act One and a few dull sections of exposition.
I really enjoyed this Christie play. It's a bit different from her other plays and certainly worth adding to your own collection of murder mystery pieces. Even if you're not in Lady Tressilian's will.
Morgan Troia and Andrew Colford; photo: provided
Toby Wherry and Katrina Klein; photo: provided
Phil Rice, Morgan Troia, John M. Trainor; photo: provided
Towards Zero plays at the Theater Barn, 654 Route 20, New Lebanon, NY, through July 24. For information and tickets call the box office at 518-794-8989 or go on line at www.theatrebarn.org.