“And Then There Were None” is the best-selling crime novel of all time. Agatha Christie fans tend to regard it as their beloved author’s masterpiece, a murder mystery so well constructed that you completely forget the basic absurdity of its setting: an island just off the coast off cuddly Devon, England, where no-one ever comes or goes on land or sea, and the level of isolation is as improbably intense as on an atoll in the furthest reaches of the South Pacific.
You could never write anything like this thing now — technological advances mean that such a set-up would be even less credible. But in 1939, you could get away with the idea that 10 strangers arrive as invited guests to a party thrown by a seemingly absent host and, when they start to pop off one by one, the remaining quarry have no choice but to remain in situ, so to speak, waiting for the killer to strike.
Despite the less-than-savory history of this laundered title (and the regressive elements of detective fiction in general and Christie in particular), public appetite for a good scare remains. To say that the Drury Lane Theatre audience on opening night was receptive does not do the experience justice: the mere pre-show announcement warning of gunshots and strobe lighting sent a palpable fissure of excitement through the mostly senior crowd, fresh from dinner. The story has been filmed several times (most recently by the BBC, which found itself unexpectedly with a huge hit) and the dramatic version remains popular. I’ve seen the show in theaters large and small: it works best, I find, in a big proscenium theater where you can turn off the lights and creep everyone out en masse.
Happy to say, director Jessica Fisch’s production reveals some notable directing chops that fit the genre. She does indeed plunge us into the dark on several occasions and one of the more crucial gunshots in the piece scared someone in my row so much that her glasses bobbled up and down on her nose as she grasped the velour armrest for comfort. But it’s the pacing that is most crucial here and the consequent build of tension. All are deftly handled.
“And Then There None” is a very sophisticated player when it comes to the relative level of knowledge between characters and audience. Most thrillers either exploit the dramatic irony of us knowing more than them or concentrate on withholding information from the audience. The reason “And Then There Were None” has survived lies in how well Christie switches it up. You think you’re ahead of the play only to find the wily author actually is ahead of you.
If you’'re not a fan of this kind of old-school thing, expect no mind-changing revelation here. That said, Fisch has cast the piece unusually well. I’ve often see this show play into its own stereotypes — the inspector, the colonel, the judge, the ingenue and so on. But here off-beat actors like Marilyn Dodds Frank, Cher Alvarez and especially Bruce A. Young fill out these characters with more emotional oomph than you’d typically see.
It’s funny, I’ve seen this piece often but I never quite remember the end.
Just as well.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Review: “And Then There Were None” (3 stars)