WHEN I was eight years old, seeing Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians kept me awake for a week, listening for that fatal creaking on the stairs. No one will lose any sleep over the current Kirkland House production, but a very pleasant evening of who-done-it melodrama awaits those up for some straight-forward escapism.
The play consists of that mild formula of sterectypes, gimmicks, and murder which Ms. Christie always feeds her readers. This one dates from the mid-forties and, more often than not, acts its age: On a desolate island cut off both from England's mainland and its sense of fair play eight strangers gather for a holiday. Their host, they learn, is delayed in London. As the guests introduce themselves, a ghostly voice breaks in to accuse each one of a specific murder. It even throws in one for the butler and his wife, the cook.
The voice's source is a grammaphone recording. The characters each explain away their indictments. The guests realize that their pseudonymous host--for he-she must be one of them--goes in for morbid fun and games. When, one by one, they drop dead from unnatural causes, they know he's settled down to business.
Subtlety isn't one of the play's virtues. Christie's killer sticks closely to the execution scheme that the "Ten Little Indians" poem suggests--which he conveniently displays next to the fireplace. After each ritual murder someone is sure to pipe up, "Oh, that method fits here!" The sexually repressed spinster, the swaggering man of adventure, and the sweet-young-thing secretary are just three of the ten cliches who populate the island. And it happens, of course, on a dark and stormy night.
But Agatha Christie didn't become the world's most popular authoress because of her intellectuality: her specialty is good clean death, and Ten Little Indians does fine in this department. The evening's mystery guest pulls off a couple of the smoothest on-stage poisonings I've ever not witnessed. While Christie may rub our noses in the paradoxes and devious clues she invents, she's a masterbuilder of tension and an incorrigibly clever murderess--which even her hum-drum sentimentality can't hide.
Director Steve Bunnell has been kind enough to this dowager murder mystery to play it straight. He has recognized its enduring strength--that magic touch with homicide--and admirably avoids ridiculing the sags and wrinkles that have developed over thirty years. Considerable editing and re-phrasing could give the script enough of a face lift to disguise its age. Aside from attempting that massive task, allowing Ten Little Indians the straight-faced charm of anachronism (the spinster disapproves of low-backed evening gowns) is the best one can do.
BY TONIGHT'S OPENER, the company should have firmed up its performance to a very respectable level. In the eyes of this reviewer, the crimes the actors committed, like those of the characters, had mitigating circumstances: here, the first dress rehearsal. The cast had the usual difficulties with English accents, but had sense enough to stay intelligible if not English. All the players worked within their assigned stereotypes; Hope Auerbach's spinster and Kenneth Demsky's judge were particularly well filled out. If Faith Dickerson masters the fine art of hysterics, her portrayal of the secretary will match Henry Goodhue's affable characterization of her would-be seducer, the adventurer. Anyway, no one committed a capital offense Monday. And, in general, the production improves as the murders mount: with each passing corpse the blocking becomes cleaner and the pace intensifies.
Ten Little Indians is about as melodramatic as they come. But this theater-club standby still sent a tingle of suspense and terror down my spine. Considering that I've read the book and seen the play twice before, that Kirkland House crowd must be doing something right.
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