Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photo by Brett Beiner.
At what point do we stop producing a “classic” play that has become cliché and whose plot, while undeniably clever, may have lost its ability to thrill modern audiences? At what point do we admit that, due to its very nature, its characters are little more than cardboard contrivances for that plot to be hanged on? At what point do we acknowledge that its source’s nihilistic ending suits its story much better than the fabricated “happier” ending its author fashioned for it? These thoughts and more poured through my mind as I watched the latest production of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None at Drury Lane Theatre.
And Then There Were None, based on the best-selling murder mystery of all time, was reconstructed as a stage play by the author in 1943. Christie’s novel is, basically, a murder mystery on steroids. Ten people, all strangers to each other, are invited to spend a weekend at an island retreat by a mysterious benefactor that, they later discover, is also unknown to all of them. When they arrive, their host is not present and they quickly discover that the whole weekend is a pretext for something else, as a mysterious recording shockingly accuses each one of them of being guilty of murder. Of course, these accusations upset and anger them; they each knew the dead people they are accused of killing, but proclaim themselves to be innocent of any criminal act. Some of them decide to leave the island right away and thus discover that leaving is impossible: there are no boats on the island and the only one that comes regularly is the one that ferried them over, which brings supplies each day. And of course a storm is coming: they are essentially stuck. And then, one by one, they start dying.
Above the mantle (or in each bedroom in the novel) is a framed copy of the famous rhyme, “Ten Little Soldier Boys,” the one that ends with the title of the play. (More about that later.) It quickly becomes obvious that each death is designed to mimic the way in which the next “soldier boy” dies in the rhyme. (Example: the first death in the rhyme is due to choking, and the first death on the island is one character’s choking, gurgling death due to cyanide poisoning.) As more deaths pile up and a search of the house and the bare rock island turns up no one else, the characters begin to comprehend that the killer must be one of them. This, of course, leads to suspicions aimed in every direction, and the game is afoot.
Director Jessica Fisch does everything she can to bring out in the stage play some of the wonderful tension of the novel, but she is hampered by its structure: everyone in the audience knows that the characters will be dying one by one so, instead of getting caught up in their desperation to remain alive, we end up playing a collective game of “who’s next?” that renders some of the deaths a bit silly. Example: everyone in the audience knows that one character has died long before the other characters in the room, who should logically be driven to focus on such possibilities, figure it out. Further, several of the deaths, because this is a play, occur offstage, giving them less impact. Therefore, if a character leaves the stage, we pretty much assume they will die, and (mostly) that’s what happens. In fact, we’re caught off-guard when one of them actually returns. The only real tension comes when just two people remain, a situation fraught with melodramatic possibility. And the only really frightening moment is a jump-scare that occurs due to a dramatic contrivance.
In framing this very complex story (for which she was justly praised at the time), Christie’s intention was very dark: all of her characters die in the novel, as the title suggests. In revisiting it for the stage, though, she feared that audiences would rebel against something that devastating, so she changed the ending to provide at least some semblance of hope. It feels false, though; her manipulation is too obvious, leaving Fisch or anyone choosing to direct this show with a situation that plays out as unrealistic. Better the nihilistic version: at least it’s true to the characters and story.
None of this is to say that there are not things to like about Drury Lane’s production, beginning with the extraordinary set by Andrew Boyce and Driscoll Otto’s excellent lighting design. (While I’m praising the technical work. I want to mention Ray Nardelli’s sound design, which provides perfect music to enhance various scenes, even though sitting as I was near the back of the house it was not always clearly audible.) These designers, along with Fisch, are responsible for creating the show’s signature moments: the “countdowns” of character reveals at several points in the show that vividly highlight the fact that the numbers are growing steadily smaller. One flaw in the design: I did not believe for a moment that the glass outer wall could totally dampen the noise of a raging thunderstorm.
Also strong are the performances, especially Cher Álvarez as Vera Claythorne, who probably goes through more emotional swings than any other character as she responds to the insanity of their predicament. Most of the other characters are not allowed to show as much variety, but there are still some outstanding portrayals, among which are Marilyn Dodds Frank, who excels as the Bible-quoting, judgmental Emily Brent; Zachary Keller, who clearly has a great time as the reckless Anthony Marsten; Yousof Sultani, who brings some complexity and darkness to the pistol-packing Philip Lombard; David Kortemeier, who plays the nervous Dr. Armstrong, who specializes in (surprise!) nerves; and Matt DeCaro, who brings needed gravitas to Sir Lawrence Wargrave. Some of the characters, though, are so underwritten that there is little the actors can do with them, though they certainly try. Paul Tavianini is the epitome of the dutiful servant; Jennifer Engstrom is his wife, flustered that she alone must take care of all of the housework on this crowded weekend; Paul-Jordan Jansen plays a character so boldly all over the map that the actor can hardly isolate him; and Bruce A. Young does what he can with a character whose operative description seems to be “old.” Casey Hoekstra also makes a brief appearance as the boat operator.
There is nothing wrong, of course, with producing older plays; we need to celebrate theatre’s past as well as its present, and some of the great works of the first half of the 20th Century, both comedic and dramatic, hold up very well today. But it’s hard to deny that a lot of classics are problematic for one reason or another. Many contain lines and characters that modern audiences would find insensitive to women, LGBTQ people, foreigners, people of color, etc. In most such cases, careful editing of the script will help take care of things, though it’s not unreasonable to ask why it is necessary to perform them at all. And Then There Were None is dated and less exciting than it should be, given its genre and provenance. Its racial insensitivities were clear and obvious in its early incarnation, when the rhyme was not “Ten Little Soldier Boys” but racially and culturally insensitive references to Black people and, later, Native Americans. Drury Lane, in its early publicity for the play, failed stunningly to recognize that history as it used the image of a noose in its graphics.
Other than the rhyme, however (which also provided early insensitive titles for the novel), the play is a classic murder mystery, pure and simple. Unfortunately, for audiences primed to expect some sort of theatrical thrills along with their in-seat sleuthing, this play’s structure just gives away too much. Everything that happens is pretty much expected until close to the end, and the ending itself is so improbable as to be almost nonsensical. But who knows: you may well find it much more captivating than I did. Certainly, there were a significant number of audience members on opening night who enjoyed it thoroughly. I will say this, though: if you go to see this play, sit as close as possible to the stage. The huge house at Drury Lane swallows up this intimate production, and I noticed many more vocal responses coming from far in front of me than from the rear. As always, though, your mileage may vary.
And Then There Were None is now playing at the Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace through Sep 1. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.