By this time in the winter, even a relatively mild winter such as this one (so far), a person begins to long for the joys of warm weather. One of those is the pleasure of biting into an ear of steaming, freshly buttered, sweet corn on the cob.
Our world permits only a few such moments of unalloyed bliss, so we must seek them out when we can. And if you'd like to take a delicious bite of something really corny right about now, open wide and devour And Then There Were None, now presented by Great Lakes Theater. This warhorse by the British crime novel maven Agatha Christie (no relation to the New Jersey governor, we assume) is the very essence of corny. It is pretty predictable, unsophisticated and old-fashioned, and its inexorable march to the conclusion often feels like a déjà vu recollection of a previous déjà vu moment.
Yes, the structure of this story — a group of strangers gathered in an isolated house with one being a serial killer — has been employed numerous times since Christie penned her original novel in 1939. True to a popular song of the time, the original racist title of the book was Ten Little Ni**ers; then it was changed to Ten Little Indians and finally to Ten Little Soldier Boys. That nursery rhyme is central to the story, the last five lines of which comprise the current play's title. Indeed, the poem is displayed on stage, above a collection of toy soldier statues.
Those statues thin out as the people, invited to vacation at a luxurious home on the shore of the aptly named Soldier Island, begin to die off. None of these guests appear to know each other, or their host. They each were invited by a man named U.N. Owen and his wife under different pretexts, most of which involve a substantial sum of money. So the gullible folks arrive with their luggage in hand, ready for a relaxing and remunerative stay on this rocky isle.
But this ain't Fantasy Island, folks. And even though all the invitees are well heeled, Mr. Roarke and Tattoo aren't about to show up and make their secret dreams come true. Actually, the owners of the house are nowhere to be found: As we are informed, U.N. Owen can also be pronounced "unknown." (Mwah-ha-ha!) Still, after the first death, the apparent result of choking, everyone seems to think it was just a tragic accident.
But once the second person is found dead, and then the third, even the dimmest among the group know they are not guests, they're targets. And thanks to an ominous recorded "greeting" from Owen, they know they have been singled out because of deaths they were responsible for earlier in their own lives. In an egalitarian gesture, even the two hired servants, Mr. and Mrs. Rogers (dutiful M.A. Taylor and hard-as-nails Maggie Kettering, respectively), are included as part of the doomed 10.
The reason this corn is so fresh and buttery toothsome are the performances by the GLT cast, as tightly directed by Charles Fee. Each character is a nicely chiseled type, each with enough sharp edges to qualify as the heinous murderer. A bright and rather sultry Laura Welsh Berg is Vera Claythorne, hired sight-unseen to serve as Mrs. Owen's secretary. She draws the attention of handsome Philip Lombard, played by Nick Steen with a sheen of excessive self-esteem.
Then there's Laura Perrotta, giving Emily Brent a school-marm-from-hell turn and deftly cadging laughs from her pinched portrayal. As the judge Sir Lawrence Wargrave, Tom Ford keeps his usual bag of comedy tricks holstered and gives this justice a Scalia-like snark. Jonathan Dyrud contributes energy as the fast-car loving free spirit Anthony Marston, and Aled Davies takes on the role of a Cassandra in the person of General Mackenzie, who foretells doom for them all and wants only to be reunited with his dead wife. Rounding out the victims is an amusing David Anthony Smith as the voluble William Blore and Dougfred Miller as the haunted Dr. Armstrong.
This is all staged in scenic designer Russell Metheny's to-die-for living room, complete with an ocean view visible through the glass walls. As opulent as it seems, with the gunmetal gray upholstered furniture and marble fireplace, the stark rocky cliffs of the island impinge on both sides of the room, providing a claustrophobic feeling that resonates perfectly. Not to mention the percussive, ominously thunderous music provided between scenes and acts by sound designer Joe Court.
This play also adopts the play's "new ending" which is actually the ending of Christie's original story. It was brightened up for audiences who attended the show in England during the dark days of World War II. But this is 2016, baby, and political correctness is out the window. So buckle down for a play that faithfully lives up to its title.And Then There Were None
Through March 20 by Great Lakes Theater, 2067 East 14th St., 216-241-6000, greatlakestheater.org