All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Eight people, strangers to each other, are invited to spend the weekend at a British country estate situated on an island and only reachable by boat, a ferry that comes once each morning to bring fresh supplies and to transport anyone departing to the mainland.
Besides the eight guests, the house is occupied by two servants, the Rogerses, a husband and wife who were hired by the same couple that asked the octet to spend time and dine with them. Neither the guests nor the servants have ever met their hosts, also a husband and wife who curiously have the same initials. They are Mr. and Mrs. U.N. Owen.
Jaunts to the country are quite common in British life of the period about which Agatha Christie writes in her mystery, “And Then There Were None.” Each of the eight are delighted the Owens requested their presence, and each looks forward to a calm, peaceful stay by England’s temperamental Devon coast.
The first thing each guest learns upon arrival is the Owens are delayed and will not be on the island for dinner the first night. You glean at this point how little the guests know about the couple. One guest, an elderly fussbudget named Emily Brent, says she only accepted the invitation because she misread Mrs. Owen’s signature and confused it for a Mrs. Ogden she met on a cruise.
No matter. The home is well stocked with food and liquor. The Rogerses are there to see to all needs. Mrs. Rogers informs us she is an excellent cook, so all should be cordial and cozy. The guests, though not much impressed with one another, even manage to get along.
Things could go swimmingly, but “And Then There Were None” is by Agatha Christie and is play. Something has to happen, and that something is bound to be murder.
The audience at the Walnut Street Theatre does not have to wait long for the first death, foreshadowed by a record Mr. Rogers had orders to place on the turntable at a given time to warn all 10 inhabitants their death is imminent. That initial killing excites your curiosity, as Charles Abbott’s production lulls you in and induces you to guess who the next victim among the 10 will be.
Christie wiles the time between deaths with conversation. The survivors certainly have much to talk about. For one, they have to figure out if there is an eleventh person on the island, a psychopath who is out to kill each of them in alleged retribution for deaths they have caused but for which they’ve gone unpunished, or if the murdered is one of their number.
A kind of inquisition begins, during which each guest must say something about him- or herself and the accusation against them on the fateful recording. They are asked to talk about the alleged crime mentioned, to be honest about their actual identities and knowledge of the Owens, and whether they have a grudge against another potential victim or a weapon they can use to murder someone. Several of the 10 are dismayed to learn that Philip Lombard, a man the recording says left native soldiers in his military command stranded and subject to certain ambush and massacre, has a revolver he will not surrender. Lombard aptly claims he is not intending to kill anyone and that he prefers to keep the gun for self-defense.
But is that true.
There’s where Christie and the Walnut have you. You do not and cannot know. Only by watching the stage and listening and looking for clues can you unravel the mystery, just as the characters are trying to do the same onstage.
Everyone in the Walnut auditorium participates in the conundrum’s solution in some way or the another, and that is the fun of Abbott’s production, playing a detective and figuring out who might be dispatched next.
Interestingly, Abbott uses curiosity and an odd sort of kinship with the potential victims to engage the Walnut audience. The theater never becomes tension-fraught or brimming with suspense. The play is more a chance to use one’s power of deduction. We want to know why the murderer is so vindictive towards his or her victims, so out for what he or she calls justice, and we amuse ourselves in trying to follow clues to see if we can name the killer or any possible survivors from his or her rampage.
Abbott keeps the mood in the theater, and on stage, calm and deliberate. It’s not as if you will ever see a murderer in the act of killing. The deaths occur almost unnoticed or offstage while the others talk ad infinitum about what they might do to solve their dilemma. Christie reveals what she knows about human nature in the conversations among the guests. You can see that although they may all be prey to the same fate, they do not trust each other and will not totally agree to teamwork or to putting themselves in a vulnerable position in regard to another guest.
Christie and Abbott play a waiting game, but it is never tedious because you are always watching for the next murder or listening to see if one of the guest gives something about him- or herself away.
Clues occupy you more than dialogue. The stage-right wall of the set receives a lot of attention. Over a fireplace is a child’s rhyme that talks about 10 soldiers who go on a mission and perish, one by one, is specific ways, until, as Christie promises, there are none. The rhyme indicates the means of death, so when you hear a soldier was killed after being left behind, you start counting the people on stage and worrying if one leaves the room or is somehow isolated. Of course, such vigilance is a trap. Christie has cooked it so you will never be able to actually guess the next to die. In this play, and in Abbott’s production, wanting to know is everything. You create your own suspense as you calculate subsequent moves. I had an idea about who the murderer was and expressed it at intermission only to have my candidate killed within minutes of the second-act curtain being raised.
There’s another reason why that stage-right wall garners your attention. On the mantel of the fireplace, just below the rhyme are 10 figurines, each one, it turns out, representing one of the guests. As a guest dies, a figurine disappears. See if you don’t find yourself staring at the mantel on occasion to see if another piece of crockery has been removed, especially at times when more than one character is offstage.
Theatrically, Abbott and company are providing a shared experience between the audience and the characters. Nothing is overly intense. Even the doomed on stage seem generally more watchful and deliberating than rattled. It’s the anticipation of another fatal act that counts, and you find yourself willing to bide your time to see how it all will end.
The characters seem like representatives from British novels of the period. There is a spinster, Emily Brent, who is strict about her meals, her schedule, and the company she keeps. There are two soldiers, one an officer who reached the rank of general, the other who was a captain but does not quite have the military commitment one might expect from a soldier with a commission. Damon Bonetti, playing this captain, Philip Lombard, keeps his character among the most consistently interesting among the island’s constantly dwindling inhabitants.
Other characters are a judge who has a reputation for employing the death penalty, a police officer who lost his badge because of some unknown malfeasance, a secretary who was hired by Owens to help organize the weekend, a medical doctor who may have caused a patient’s death because he was drunk during the surgery, and the Rogerses, who are accused of giving too close attention to one of their former employers from whom they were given an inheritance.
You listen to the byplay among this group, especially at the beginning of the play, before the planned murders are announced but, again, you remained just as attuned to your own counsel and speculation about what is about to occur. If there is suspense, it doesn’t come so much from trying to name the murderer as from wondering who the next victim will be. You’ll think, along with the guests, the rhyme will help you, but it doesn’t. It’s a Christie red herring used to pique your interest and make you think you can figure out the murderer’s, or author’s, logic, but it’s a fruitless tool.
Little exciting happens on the Walnut stage, but you can’t take your eyes off of it. You can sense the attention level in the theater. Christie is having a game at our expense, and we enjoy playing and going on her and Abbott’s ride.
Damon Bonetti, as Lombard, gets a lot of your attention because he remains lively and active while many of the other characters are sedentary and staid.
Lombard has dash. He also believes he can outsmart any murderer, even if he or she turns out to be a diabolical master criminal. Bonetti’s panache provides a good change of pace. Lombard also seems to be among the more volatile of the guests. You never know if he means to use his revolver and how he might respond if he has a strong suspicion about who might be doing the killing.
Laurent Giroux, as Blore, the former policeman, speaks with a different rhythm and tone from most of the other actors and, therefore, attracts a lot of attention when he delivers his lines. Blore’s cop is also fearless, but he is also restless and quick to action and suspicion.
Blore seems to be of a different class than his housemates and is often awkward or jumpy in their presence.
Harry Smith has two roles, a young man who doesn’t particularly care if someone accuses him of a crime and expects him to answer for it, and the local Devon boatman who brings food and mail to the island. Smith has the right swagger and triggers the right level of irritation as the first and is funny with his gravelly accent and wary eye as the sailor.
Wendy Scharfman is letter perfect as the old-fashioned and constantly complaining Emily Brent. You can practically take Scharfman and plunk her down in several Victorian and Edwardian plays, and her character will always be a staple. She can continue playing Emily and fit right in.
Greg Wood takes command as the judge, a man who, even more than the military officers, is accustomed to having respect and control.
John-Charles Kelly has the right air of servitude as Rogers. Sharon Alexander bickers with him well as his wife.
Jessica Bedford grows in the part of the Owen’s secretary, Vera Claythorne. At first she seems a little shrill and removed from the guests. As she learns she numbers among the possible murder victims, she becomes more and more at one with the rest of the assemblage, and Bedford’s performance takes on texture and depth as she does.
Paul L. Nolan displays the correct authority and rectitude as the doctor. Peter Schmitz is precise and purposely overbearing as the general.
Andrew Thompson’s set, decorated with weapons, shields, and drawings of military campaigns, in addition to the fireplace wall with the telltale mantel and rhyme, has the feel of a comfortable country parlor. The picture window on the upstage wall gives a view of the ocean that makes the parlor feel less claustrophobic but more open to invasion from a surreptitious murderer. The “And Then There Were None” curtain, by video designer Dan Roach and projection designer Kendall Smith, serves as an integral part of the set. It is lowered between each act, and depicts the island house as if on a postcard. The novelty is the weather conditions around the islands, the stages of the moon, lights going on and off in the house, and the flow of the ocean on the property’s beach are all visible on the curtain.
Julia Poiesz, as usual, matches clothing well to the character and the occasion. Her prim evening dress for Emily contrasts well with the more revealing gown Vera chooses to wear. Poiesz sets the more active characters, Lombard and Blore apart by having Lombard dress a bit more rakishly than the judge, doctor, or general, and by giving Blore a wardrobe a middle class person might believe is the proper dress for a country weekend but which doesn’t quite gibe with the style, quality, or even the colors of any other man’s clothing.
Christopher Colucci’s sound design has waves crashing against a beach, gun shots, and creaks that make you wonder whether someone is at large in the house or if the old mansion is just settling. Kendall Smith’s lighting is often deceptively bright, but he darkens the area around the mantel when you want to do a fast count of the figurines and is good as setting moods and deflecting your attention from parts of the stage where murder might be taking place.
“And Then There Were None” runs through Sunday, April 26, at the Walnut Street Theatre, 9th and Walnut Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday (except for April 12), and 2 p.m. Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday. No Thursday matinee is scheduled for April 16, when it will be replaced by a 10:30 a.m. performance for students. No Saturday matinee is set for March 28. Tickets range from $85 to $20 and can be obtained by calling 215-574-3550 or 800-982-2787 or by visiting www.walnutstreettheatre.org.