Witness for the Prosecution
directed by Justin Levitt
at the Leverett Old Library
December 9 through 11
Attending Witness for the Prosecution is about as fun as serving jury duty. In this faithful production of Agatha Christie's humdrum courtroom drama, the audience is asked to sit through a lengthy and primarily uneventful murder trial. Similar to real-life jury duty, the brightest moment of the play comes in the end when a verdict is announced and the plot, finally, twists.
The play's material seems pretty standard. An unassuming married man, Leonard Vole, has been accused of murdering an elderly lady friend. Motives include a possible love affair and a large inheritance. There are the usual stock murder-mystery characters: the adoring wife, the disgruntled employee, the "by the books" detective, the brainy coroner, etc. Mixed together, these elements should add up to an interesting albeit hackneyed trial drama. Unfortunately, however, Christie's play unfolds monotonously as the ad nauseum repetition of the facts of the case substitutes for dramatic action or story development.
Although the play lacks in momentum and energy, its production is marked with some powerhouse performances. Aaron Zelman, as the accused, has a wondeful talent for generating sympathy from the audience. With his awkward and frazzled mannerisms and earnest outbursts, Zelman plays Vole as a victim of his own naivete. When the truth finally comes out about Vole and the trial, one truly feels betrayed. Mark Fish as Sir Wilfrid Robarts, Vole's attorney, provides an appropriate balance for Zelman's quirkiness. Tempering his strong voice and presence with genuine smiles and engaging body language, Fish manages to make Sir Wilfrid, a paragon of logial thinking and stability, into a very human character with a sense of humor and a heart.
Witness relies heavily on courtroom tension between the defense and the prosecuting attorney. Unfortunately, Michael Wertheim plays the prosecutor more as a petulant child than as a true force with which to be reckoned. Wertheim compromises the credibility and austerity of his character by stumbling through and forgetting many of his lines. As a result, a lot of dialogue exchanged in the courtroom fails in its mission to excite the witnesses and the audience.
The plot pivots on the character of Mrs. Romaine Vole, Leonard's wife. The talented Francesca Delbanco, somewhat miscast as the elusive and always mysterious German wife, is successful in giving the play its much needed jolts. Her scenes add both interest and dimension to this colorless play. Believable as the jilted lover, Delbanco is also able to take a cheesy De Palmaesque ending and give it legitimacy and seriousness.
Director Justin Levitt seems to have just let the other characters fend for themselves. Whereas some do flesh out their roles (most notably Jessica Yager's wonderfully coy Doctor and Richard Gardner's hilarious bumbling Justice), others simply read their lines and exit. The set, also by Levitt, never quite takes on the majesty of the British courts but rather looks like a small claims court. Costumes are period enough, though the attorney's wigs sometimes make them look like Marilyn Monroe impersonators. These factors detract from the play's tenuous attempts to be intense and powerful drama.
Despite some strong performances and an exciting ending, Witness for the Prosecution, like jury duty, is engaging only if one has to be there. Say you are a student and exempt yourself.