Review: ‘And Then There Were None’

Matt Decaro (from left), Marilyn Dodds Frank, and Zachary Keller in “And Then There were None.” (Photo by Brett Beiner)

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Where: Drury Lane Theatre,
10 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace
When: through Sept. 1
Tickets: $50-$65
Phone: 630-530-0111

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

In her program note for Drury Lane Theatre’s production of “And Then There Were None,” director Jessica Fisch discusses how she grappled with presenting a play burdened with not one but two racist and insensitive previous titles (one of which was used when Drury Lane mounted the show in 2006), as well as other issues of race, gender, class and ideology that have become problematic but were ingrained in Britain in 1939, when Agatha Christie wrote what has become the world’s best-selling mystery novel.

Fisch explains that her goal was to shape Christie’s 1943 adaptation for the stage into a version for 2019 that “makes space for actors of color to step into many of these well-trodden roles….that navigates and comments on the misogyny….that is filled with immense joy, playfulness, and consideration for you, our audience.”

Judging by the enthusiastic reactions of the opening night crowd, which included gasps of shock in appropriate places, she has succeeded admirably. But I couldn’t help wishing she had paid more attention to making the stock situations and stereotypical characters more distinctive and exciting. They were new when Christie introduced them but have become so formulaic that it’s hard to find a classic whodunit without them.

Fisch does begin with some dramatic lighting by Driscoll Otto capturing the 10 soon-to-be victims in a tableau, a device she repeats several times, with fewer characters at each seating, and which she augments with a couple of well-timed blackouts. Andrew Boyce’s elegant scenic design, done in pastels with views of the sea through a wall of windows, sets the tone nicely (though I’d quibble with some details like the lack of coasters for the drinks), and Ray Nardelli’s sound design adds tension as needed. The period costumes by Jessica Pabst suit these people well.

The set-up, as you may remember, is simple. Eight guests are invited by the mysterious Mr. Ulick Norman Owen and his wife Mrs. Una Nancy Owen for a weekend getaway at a remote mansion overlooking a cliff on Soldier Island off the coast of Devon, England. Once there, they are met by two servants for whom instructions have been left. They discover that none of them knows any of the others, nor have any of them met their host, though they all received very personalized invitations. They also learn that there is no way on or off the island except by boat with Fred Narracott (Casey Hoekstra), who brings supplies daily, and there is no communication with the mainland. Naturally, a brutal storm arises, preventing the boat from coming when they desperately want to leave.

As they’re pondering the absence of their host, one of the servants, Rogers (Paul Tavianni), plays a phonograph record for them, as he’s been instructed to do. In it, each person—including Rogers and his wife Mrs. Rogers (Jennifer Engstrom), who’d been grousing about having to do the cleaning as well as the cooking—is accused of having committed a crime that resulted in the death of others. Now they are going to be punished.

The gimmick is that the murderer is obsessed with the nursery rhyme “Ten Little Soldier Boys,” a copy of which hangs over the fireplace. And on the mantle are statues of the ten little soldiers that get moved around during the evening—and smashed or otherwise destroyed, as each victim dies in a manner described in the poem.

The first verse, for example, is “Ten Little Soldier Boys went out to dine; one choked his little self and then there were nine.” The first to go is Anthony Marston (Zachary Keller), who chokes apparently due to cyanide, though his drink doesn’t seem to have any poison in it. A callous young man whose reckless driving killed two young children, he didn’t take any responsibility for his actions and isn’t much missed.

Second to go is Mrs. Rogers, who “overslept” and is found dead in her bed, followed by General Mackenzie (Bruce A. Young), a retired World War I hero who deliberately sent his wife’s lover to his death. Rogers himself is next; he and his wife were accused of killing their former elderly employer by withholding her medicine. The fifth casualty is Emily Brent (Marilyn Dodds Frank), a straightlaced, religious spinster who years earlier dismissed her unmarried maid for becoming pregnant, causing the girl to drown herself.

The five remaining guests search the house and grounds—and begin to suspect each other, even as they band together. They include Dr. Armstrong (David Kortemeier), who repeatedly insists he doesn’t touch alcohol; William Blore (Paul-Jordan Jansen), who arrives under the alias “Davies” from South Africa but turns out to be a former police inspector; Sir Lawrence Wargrave (Matt DeCaro), a retired judge accused of sentencing an innocent man to death; Philip Lombard (Yousof Sultani), a soldier of fortune who carries a revolver and is accused of abandoning his men to their deaths; and Vera Claythorne (Cher Alvarez), a resourceful young woman invited as secretary to Mrs. Owen, who formerly was a governess and allegedly let her charge drown so his uncle could inherit and marry her.

While some of the personality clashes are interesting, and the romantic banter between Philip and Vera occasionally sparkles, the play’s talkiness eventually becomes tiresome. Keeping the characters’ back stories straight also is a chore, and I admit I occasionally lost track of how a death fit the nursery rhyme.

The main pleasure of a murder mystery, as I see it, is playing amateur detective and discerning who committed the crime and how and maybe why. That’s often easier to do with a novel. Here it’s almost impossible: There simply aren’t enough clues to figure out how the killer got to each victim, and guessing who the culprit is without any evidence isn’t as much fun. The “why” turns out to kind of pointless, too.

Drury Lane’s cast is replete with veteran Chicago actors, some of whom—DeCaro, Dodds Frank, Young – turn in memorable performances. Alvarez’s Vera is a spirited delight, but at the other end of the spectrum, Jansen hasn’t quite gotten a handle on Blore. Still, if you’re a fan of Christie, “And Then There Were None” is worth the trip especially on a nice summer night.