Who-, what-, when-, where-, how-done-it

Towards Zero

By Agatha Christie
Directed by Alexa Kelly
Pulse Ensemble Theatre
432 West 42nd St. (695-1596)
Equity showcase (closes Mar. 11)
Review by David Mackler

Towards Zero features one of Agatha Christie's lesser-known detectives, Supt. Battle of Scotland Yard (Neil Stewart). He's not a star here in the manner of Poirot or Miss Marple - in fact, he doesn't come on until halfway through, and he doesn't even get to deliver the dénouement. Christie based the play on her novel of the same name, and while all the elements of classic murder mystery are in place (a country house, a violent storm, everyone with a motive), the production at Pulse is simultaneously a character-driven soap opera.

Huge amounts of exposition masquerade as dialogue, but once the who's-who and what's-what are in place, the set-up is quite intriguing. The guests at Lady Tressilian (JoAnne Tolassi) 's home in Cornwall include Nevile Strange (Stephen Aloi), his current wife Kay (JulieHera DeStefano), and his first wife Audrey (Fransesca Marrone). Lady T herself is an imposing grand dame, and she comes complete with a secretary/companion (Marianne Mathews) who has a nervous twitch. Thomas Royde (Frank Episale) has just come back after seven years on the rubber plantation in Malaya, and Christie gives him and Mathew Treves (Steve Abbruscato) a conversation which is the equivalent of a musical's title song: Royde complains that the mystery he is reading is unsatisfactory because it starts off with a murder. Murder, Treves feels, is never the beginning of a story; it is the culmination of a sequence of events, the final point of a countdown towards zero.

Everyone, it seems, has forebodings of "something wrong," and sure enough - it's an Agatha Christie play, after all - murder will out. It's a violent one as these things go, but it's offstage, so that's all right. But when was the last time you saw a mystery where the murder weapon was a niblick? The entire production is an exercise in a kind of nostalgia - the men wear ties and suits even though the weather is beastly hot, and everyone dresses for dinner. A doctor can be called from the village and will arrive promptly, and a Scotland Yard superintendent vacationing nearby (and naturally a friend of one of the guests) is more than happy to assist in the investigation.

Clearly, Christie is the star of Towards Zero, and some of the actors did better with their characters (and accents!) than others. The unequivocal delight of this production was JulieHera DeStefano as the second Mrs. Strange (no one gives characters names like that anymore, not without masses of subtext anyway). She was vibrant and ravishing in Terry Leong's glorious costumes (no one dresses like that anymore, more's the pity). Marianne Mathews played her twitches for comic effect but was never overbearing, and Fransesca Marrone played the facets of her character convincingly.

Director Alexa Kelly staged the play with minimal fuss, encouraging the perception that it must be presented seriously even though the whole thing is faintly ridiculous. The set (Jennifer Varbalow) was a good representation of an English country house, and Louis Lopardi's lights and sound were likewise appropriate (the thunderstorm was just right). Mood-setting music was somewhat overbearing, but what the heck, it was all part of the tongue-in-cheek fun.

The resolution of the mystery, mostly based on clues planted earlier, relies too heavily on some last-minute evidence, and the cleverness of the plot was a little more clever than the performer playing the culprit who, of course, turns out to be æ lights go out, a scream is heard in the dark ... æ

Also with Mark McClain Wilson, Adam Green.

Box Score:

Writing: 1

Directing: 1

Acting: 1

Set: 1

Costumes: 2

Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2001 David Mackler