Sunday, March 10, 2002

'Indians' talks audience to death

Theater review

By Jackie Demaline,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Ten Little Indians has barely begun when a suspicious-looking lot parade into the great room of an isolated island mansion that of course doesn't have a phone. (Or a means back to the mainland.)

        Because it's Agatha Christie, we know that even if nobody has done anything yet, sooner rather than later, somebody will.

        Because it's Playhouse in the Park, we know it's going to look great. All the nefarious doings play out in a Frank Lloyd Wright-meets-stone quarry decor. (Elegant terrace leads to rocky cliff to azure sea beyond.)

        So, whodunit? Entirely too-cheery William Blore? Callous Anthony Marston? Dour Emily Brent? Dotty General Mackenzie? Fusty Sir Lawrence Margrave? Nervous Dr. Armstrong? Pretty young Vera Claythorpe? Or how about that irritatingly flippant adventurer Philip Lombard?

        Ten Little Indians (circa 1939) is older than your granny so it's not exactly giving the game away to say that a homicidal maniac is loose on the island, knocking off the unpleasant folk trapped in the house, according to a grisly nursery rhyme featured over the fireplace.

        Ms. Christie was a master plotter, and it's the bucket load of twists, strategies and red herrings that have made work like Indians and The Mousetrap famous.

        Despite its elegant structure, Indians creaks with age, maybe more than it needs to under John Going's direction. It's all properly done, as were his last Playhouse outings The Importance of Being Earnest and The Beauty Queen of Leenane. As usual, he just doesn't make it enough fun.

        By late in the second act, the characters aren't the only ones dying. By then the audience is almost talked to death.

        We hear lots of why the folks deserve to be on a madman's hit list, who suspects whom and why. It's all in that arch, so-specific '30s British dinner party style Ms. Christie made famous.

        Conversation is interrupted occasionally by murder, but too many of them occur out of sight of the audience.

        The design team does a fine job of establishing a sinister atmosphere including a wopping good thunderstorm. (Lightning design is by Dennis Parichy.)

        Costume designer Elizabeth Covey chooses a palette of browns, one supposes in tribute to England's wartime status, for her characters. Miss Scarlet, Colonel Mustard and Mrs. Peacock were more eye-pleasing if less historically accurate.

        The capable cast are merely pawns to move Dame Agatha's carefully constructed plot forward. They have less dimension than the little Indian statuettes on the mantel that keep disappearing one by one.

        My favorite among the detestable line-up is Jill Tanner as the cruel and fanatic Miss Brent. (Brrrr!)

        Opening night featured bouts of coughing rising from the lower rows. The culprits, this detective suspects, were the madly smoking characters on stage.

        Ten Little Indians, through April 5, Playhouse in the Park Marx Theatre, 421-3888.

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