Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians, this season's holiday offering at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, is a baffling deception. Ten people are invited to -- and then find themselves stranded on -- a remote island in the English Channel. Although the ten are strangers, all share the same dark secret, for each was involved with a death (or deaths) that went unpunished. Now retribution is at hand.
There's definitely a crime to be solved, but we're not referring to the onstage murders; by evening's end they resolve themselves. A much more intriguing conundrum is to try to determine who killed the play. There are several possible suspects. Consider, for instance, scenic designer John Ezell. His fingerprints are all over this production, for he has designed a soaring, aerie-like ivory tower of an island home, built around rock outcroppings. With a little imagination this split-level haven of peace can even stand in for London's Old Bailey courtroom. No, Ezell is no killer; he's as clean as his stylish set.
Are there any lurking culprits among the cast? To the contrary, there's a lot of talent on the Rep stage. Although Christie created her characters with broad strokes, several actors are in sync with the play's 60-year-old groove. As a self-pitying old general, Whit Reichert has fun manipulating the audience's empathy. As a defiant retired judge, Richard Ramos is so effective at moving the action forward, he might as well have a bullwhip in his hand. "I will have the court clear-ed," Ramos bellows, elongating the last word into two crisp syllables. Delicious.
Then there's the curiously eccentric Rob Krakovski as a soldier of fortune who might not be quite so heroic as his posing suggests. Krakovski instills his role with a panache that is just off-kilter enough to give the viewer pause. At one point he wears a pair of sleek, creamy white trousers that make him seem ten feet tall. Except maybe for an ice-cream vendor or Professor Harold Hill, no sane person would wear those slacks, but Krakovski dons them without the least bit of self-consciousness.
No, the cast is not to be blamed.
How about director Susan Gregg? Again, not guilty. Her staging is fluid, and she's even able to instill a bit of much-needed humor into the scene transitions.
If the fault be not with designer, director or cast, who is the culprit? Would you believe, none other than the grande dame of mystery writers herself! Agatha Christie was known for the ingenuity of her murder weapons -- booby trap, arson, dagger. Here she kills the play by talking it to death.
Christie may have been one of the world's most renowned purveyors of fiction, but an accomplished dramatist she was not -- at least not in 1943, when Ten Little Indians was first produced in London. When she set out to adapt her own 1939 novel And Then There Were None, Christie knew that her foremost task was to thin down the incessant chatter that fills the pages of the book. Despite her best efforts, she didn't prune it enough. A viewer might tolerate that first 35 minutes of pedestrian exposition if, once the methodical, maniacal carnage begins, the pace were to pick up. It doesn't. Instead, people keep talking and talking. To compound the problem, too many killings occur offstage, thus sapping even more drama from the proceedings.
Never one to rest on her reputation, Christie kept at playwriting. Most of her scripts were not produced in New York, and with good reason. In time, however, she did master the form, most notably in Witness for the Prosecution. Alas, that whodunit has a cast of 30 and is rarely revived. Fortunately, Billy Wilder's film version satisfies from beginning to end.
But with Ten Little Indians, we must wait for the end in order for the thrills to begin. The evening's final minutes deliver the kind of tricky surprise for which we've been hoping all night. The question then becomes: Having endured so much verbosity, does the viewer still care? If this fledgling effort is more an exercise in tedium than in mayhem, the novice playwright has no one to blame but herself.