The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is concluding its mainstage season with an exercise in irrelevance. Even as a venue for escapism, Agatha Christie's Witness for the Prosecution is conventional to the point of being mundane.
When the Rep can choose its offerings from the shelves of world drama, old and new, what possible excuse is there for devoting one-sixth of its mainstage season to negligible community-theater fare? The answer is obvious: money. For some inexplicable reason, Agatha Christie is a cash cow. Forget all that lofty fundraising gab about how theater is supposed to explore the human condition. Three years ago the Rep had a box-office hit with another Christie potboiler, Ten Little Indians; one can safely assume the staff has been chomping at the bit to get Christie into the schedule ever since.
Despite her international fame, and despite the fact that this play ran on Broadway for nineteen months in the mid-1950s, Prosecution is best remembered thanks to Billy Wilder's classic 1957 film adaptation, which elevates an evening of repetitious exposition into a delightfully droll melodrama. The improvements to the story are jaw-dropping. Whereas Christie takes up space with slack random talk, Wilder constantly deepens and enriches characters. The movie does not have a single extraneous line of dialogue; everything is there to help build to the climax. Along the way filmgoers grow to care about Leonard Vole, who has been accused of murdering his patroness, and they become endeared to the irascible curmudgeon Sir Wilfrid Robarts, who begrudgingly undertakes to defend Vole.
If there's nothing irascible, curmudgeonly or begrudging about Sir Wilfrid onstage, we can't really fault Joneal Joplin's performance; the blame lies with Christie's vapid character. Nor would it be fair to compare Joplin to Charles Laughton, who devoured the role on screen. Laughton, after all, was a gargantuan, charismatic presence. But was it really necessary to predicate Joplin's portrayal on being the anti-Laughton? Whereas Laughton savors every single line reading, Joplin's Sir Wilfrid has all the color of an embalmer. There's nothing wrong with instilling Sir Wilfrid with a Dickensian quality, but he shouldn't be modeled after Oliver Twist's Mr. Sowerberry.
As in any Christie thriller, there are surprises here, but they're not necessarily the surprises the author set up. In Act One, for instance, which plays out in the law office, the opening exchange between Sir Wilfrid's foolish young typist and his stuffy chief clerk easily the worst-written scene in the script is one of the most enjoyable of the evening. In her all-too-brief turn as the naive typist, Tarah Flanagan brings an élan to the piece that the entire evening needs.
Once Sir Wilfrid arrives and seats himself at his desk, the mystery begins to unfold. Not, alas, the mystery of whodunit; rather, the mystery of how the other actors are going to converse with Joplin without having to turn their backs to the audience. If you get bored watching the play, you might want to keep count of how many times that chair across from the desk gets repositioned to help actors avoid being upstaged.
Any hope that fireworks will begin to crackle when the action moves into the Old Bailey goes unrealized. Much of the sterile courtroom is filled with nonspeaking actors, but none of the extras add to the sense of tension or even to a sense of occasion; they merely take up space. And director Michael Evan Haney's idea of placing the unseen jury box downstage right and then having those in the witness box play their scenes to the imaginary jurors becomes an irritating distraction.
Murder, we're often told, is the ultimate crime, but in the theater there's an even more serious offense than that: dullness. Viewers will have to judge for themselves whether Witness for the Prosecution is guilty as charged. Or, if you really want to enjoy the suspense, the surprise and yes, the sheer theatricality of this courtroom thriller, rent the movie.