A Touch of Class

LTW takes Agatha Christie for another spin in the oddly directed 'Murder on the Nile'

Even a writer of the "cozy" genre of mysteries needs to get out of the parlor every once in a while. In 1937, novelist Agatha Christie sent detective Hercule Poirot on a cruise on a paddle steamer up the Nile. The trip proved to be such a success that a few years later, Christie mounted a repeat expedition, but this time on the stage rather than on the page. Apparently Poirot was otherwise engaged, for Christie wrote him entirely out of the theatrical version, Murder on the Nile.

Christie seems to be a reliable money-maker for Live Theatre Workshop, and if the company is dusting off one of her quaint mysteries yet again, that's just fine if it will set LTW up financially to do something chancier later this season, notably Toni Press-Coffman's Holy Spirit on Grand Avenue. But here we are, at the moment, with Dame Agatha and her ship of fools, and it's worth boarding the old boat even though director Delani Cody makes a couple of serious miscalculations in the second half.

The basic problem: How seriously are we to take Agatha Christie these days? She did have the good sense to work some humor into her characters, but she also fell back onto a number of unintentionally melodramatic little mystery conventions that seemed silly and predictable even as she was helping to invent them. So when a company like Live Theatre Workshop mounts a 60-year-old play like Murder on the Nile, should it be played straight, or should it be sent up?

In its past few Christie productions, LTW has opted for gentle mockery. Here, though, director Cody starts out taking the material seriously, as well she might, then ultimately turns on it.

Murder on the Nile isn't just a little contrivance in which someone deservedly gets killed and a few suspects bicker in a closed room until someone among them deduces the solution to the murder. No, Christie prefaces all this with nothing less than a little skirmish in the ongoing English class war.

The tour boat's passenger manifest includes an arrogant aristocratic matron, her niece-servant from the wrong side of the family, a testy young man spouting off about the rights of the proletariat, a glamorous and exceptionally wealthy young heiress, her brand-new and previously not especially well-off husband--all of these people are English, needless to say--and an intelligent doctor who has the poor taste to be a dark-skinned foreigner. A couple of surprise passengers board the boat, too: the heiress' guardian, a man of the cloth who draws on his ward's fortune to further his good works, and the heiress' former best friend, who until recently had been engaged to the man who is presently honeymooning with the heiress.

So through the first half of the play, the upper-crust Brits sneer about "the natives" and the hyenas in the same breath; the outsiders contend with being outside; the pastor delivers sermonettes about conscience and character; and nobody gets around to getting killed for quite some time--not until after intermission, in fact. (LTW has compressed the play's three acts into two.) It's rather interesting, in a not-too-Marxist way.

Once the deed is done, though, Christie settles into the conventions of the genre: The suspects are isolated; each is questioned and gives up evidence that may or may not be incriminating; the amateur sleuth reconstructs the crime; the villain confesses.

And this is where director Cody loses faith in the material--but not consistently. When somebody mentions foul play, ominous music plays, and the people onstage swivel their heads in one another's direction like animatronic figures in the Murderworld ride at Disneyland. When the sleuth is narrating how the crime must have gone, Cody has the good idea of having the whole thing played out under spooky lighting--indeed, when the villain holds the murder weapon near the ear of the sleeping victim, one can't help thinking of the dumb show in Hamlet--but certain elements of this pantomime are played very broadly.

Not taking Christie seriously would be all right if such an approach held steady throughout the play, but these isolated little acts of directorial ear-wiggling disrupt the established tone. The play ends rather thoughtfully, and Cody doesn't try to tart up the melodrama there, but we can't take it seriously anymore because of the director's previous insincerity.

The cast is variable, but all the most important elements of characterization come off well. Lauren DeVille is fine as the glamorous heiress, certainly looking the part and eventually showing that she's not merely the spoiled, petulant featherbrain she initially seems. Chris Moseley brings the necessary steadiness to the role of her husband, and Michael Woodson seems to be having the right kind of fun as the cleric. Seren Helday neatly avoids clichés as the niece, and also has assembled a workable little set out of almost nothing. Lisa Ruble is basically very good as a French maid, and she has a good French accent in English; speaking French words is another matter, and if I had to hear her say "monn-sieur" or "mon doo" one more time, I would have poked her with one of those phony scarab beetles the vivacious Lin Watts tried to sell in the first scene.