Little happens on suburban or Chicago stages except by design. And in Drury Lane Theatre's urbane and unexpectedly amusing "And Then There Were None," that includes laughter.
In her program notes, director Jessica Fisch describes the production as joyful and playful. While that may seem an unusual approach for a play about serial killings, it works.
One doesn't expect an Agatha Christie murder mystery to elicit chuckles when a character gets struck by a bullet, injected with poison or felled by a statue. But that's how the opening night audience responded to this sly, briskly paced revival, which Christie adapted from her seminal 1939 novel.
Maybe fear caused them to laugh. Better to laugh than scream at this tale about 10 people, each possessing a secret and a guilty conscience, invited by unknown hosts to a lavish island estate off the English coast. There, Christie serves them their just desserts under chilling circumstances, recalling the macabre nursery rhyme "Ten Little Soldiers."
For the record, the rhyme is based on a minstrel song whose racist title Christie used for the original novel. (U.S. publishers retitled it "And Then There Were None.") Christie's stage version, whose ending differs from the novel, also had an offensive title subsequently removed.
Stylishly costumed by designer Jessica Pabst, with suspenseful sound by Ray Nardelli and an elegant, expansive set by Andrew Boyce, Drury Lane's production includes a first-rate cast.
Cher Alvarez is Vera, a working-class secretary unafraid to speak her mind. She catches the eye of Philip (Yousouf Sultani), a charming quipster and onetime soldier who may face competition from Zachary (Anthony Marston), a careless playboy fond of fast cars. While Paul-Jordan Jansen's detective William Blore investigates, Marilyn Dodds Frank's imperial Emily Brent moralizes and David Kortemeier's Dr. Armstrong struggles to control his nerves. Bruce A. Young plays the aging General Mackenzie and Matt DeCaro plays distinguished retired judge Sir Lawrence.
The last of the 10 island inhabitants are Paul Tavianini's guarded butler Rogers and Jennifer Engstrom as his put-upon wife.
Well-acted, the production also reflects attention to detail evident in unspoken exchanges between characters that reveal almost as much as the dialogue, which is peppered with sexist, racist and classist references to women and indigenous people from developing nations.
Maybe the guffaws came from people uncomfortable with such cringeworthy sentiments. Kudos to Fisch for reminding us how laughable they are.
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Location: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace. (630) 530-0111 or drurylanetheatre.com
Showtimes: 1:30 p.m. Wednesday; 1:30 and 8 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 6 p.m. Sunday through Sept. 1
Running time: About two hours, 15 minutes including intermission