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WHODUNIT

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In her play "Towards Zero," famed mystery writer Agatha Christie has Thomas Royde, an English gentleman, expound a theory of murder that the audience can only assume is the playwright’s own. Murders, says Royde, begin long before they are actually perpetrated and advance step by step toward that "zero hour."

With this theory in mind, Christie uses the first act of "Towards Zero" to set the stage for the murder, and the second act to solve it - with mixed results.

"Towards Zero," which Gerald Verner and Christie adapted from Christie’s book, was first presented by Peter Saunders at the St. James Theatre in London, in September 1956. But unlike other Christie dramas such as "Witness for the Prosecution," "Death on the Nile" and, most notably, "The Mousetrap," which opened in 1957 and is still playing to packed houses on London’s West End, "Towards Zero" has not enjoyed a long life span.

This season, the Heights Players, searching for a less frequently performed Christie drama, has revived this little-known play and is presenting it under the direction of John Bourne, who is something of a Christie expert, having already directed "The Mousetrap," "Spider’s Web" and "Murder on the Nile."

Although it takes Christie the entire first act to kill off her victim, most audiences will bear with the play’s glacial movement. After all, this is an Agatha Christie play, and we all know what that means. What’s more, Christie drops so many clues with the subtlety of nuclear bombs that only the comatose wouldn’t realize someone is going to be done in.

Nevile Strange (Sean Guerin) has invited both his first wife, Audrey (Maya Novak), and his second wife, Kay (Lana Faye Taradash), to spend the weekend at the home of his former guardian, Lady Camilla Tresillian (Marilyn Beck). If this isn’t enough to make the sparks fly (or the poison flow or the bludgeon swing), Thomas Royde (Tom Levy) - who is somewhat in love with Audrey and can’t stand Nevile - having returned from an extended stay in Malaysia, is spending the weekend on the Tresillian estate, as is the family solicitor, the thoughtful Mathew Treves (John Downing).

Of course, Lady Tresillian has her devoted, self-sacrificing (and therefore obviously suspect) companion, Mary Aldin (Lois Look). And Kay has her own suitor, an upstart named Ted Latimer (Fabio Taliercio).

Other tips include the obligatory thunderstorm, a locked garden gate, a noisy quarrel overheard by everyone, and a tired character so anxious to get to bed it seems she may fall asleep onstage.

Bill Wood has designed a country home perfect down to the smallest detail - with a terrace, fireplace, hanging plants, birdcage and wicker furniture. The only problem is that the furniture has been arranged such that for long periods the actors face the back of the stage - in the one direction where the three-sided theater faces no audience.

Perhaps in an effort to make an essentially static drawing room murder move, Bourne has blocked the action so that characters are frequently seen striding back and forth across the room for no apparent reason other than to change their seat. The result is a kind of musical chairs in which at least half the players are facing the wrong way.

American actors, with their American accents, are always at a disadvantage with an English play. This problem is exacerbated with English mystery writers like Christie who considered it unacceptable to murder anyone who did not have, or was not married to someone who had, a seat in the House of Lords.

Neither Guerin nor Taliercio project the careless elegance of an English gentleman; they are both far too earnest and unsophisticated. Levy, who may be trying to sound cold and proper, ends up sounding bored.

Only Downing walks into his role like Cinderella stepping into her glass slipper. He seems totally comfortable in Lady Tresillian’s house and totally believable as a trusted friend of the family.

The distaff side of the play does much better.

Taradash, with her dark hair and flaming red dress, has the sharp tongue and flashing eyes of our favorite bad girls. Is she bad enough to do in her dastardly husband when he appears ready to take back his first wife?

Novak, a demure blonde, wears a beige dress and a sweet smile we suspect is hiding something. Beck and Look are two veterans who know how to make their presence felt on stage.

Once Christie produces a murder, the play takes off. Thomas Tyler as Superintendent Battle walks into the scene and takes over like a Brooklyn cop who just happened to be in the area. If this wasn’t exactly what Dame Agatha had in mind, Tyler injects enough energy into the role to make even Scotland Yard forgive his aberrant accent.

Besides, now Christie’s trademark twists and turns take over and everyone in the audience is too busy trying to cull the culprits from the red herrings to care about such trifles as how someone pronounces "ladies and gentlemen."

"Towards Zero" is definitely not topnotch Christie, but being a Christie, it still deserves a place somewhere at the top of the mystery genre. Trying to figure out whodunit in a Christie mystery is like trying to get out of a maze when the walls keep moving. If you like the challenge, you’ll love "Towards Zero."

 

"Towards Zero" plays through March 17, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm, Sunday at 2 pm. Tickets are $12, seniors and students $10. The Heights Players theater is located at 26 Willow Place between Joralemon and State streets in Brooklyn Heights. For reservations, call (718) 237-2752.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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