Murder on the Nile

The cast keeps this otherwise tepid fare afloat

Miss Scarlett on the B deck with the candlestick?: Don Owen investigates Carrie H. Stephens
Miss Scarlett on the B deck with the candlestick?: Don Owen investigates Carrie H. Stephens
Photo courtesy of Bret Brookshire

Murder on the Nile

City Theatre, 3823-D Airport
Through May 5
Running time: 2 hr., 25 min.

When Bernard Buckham of the Daily Mirror reviewed the West End opening of Murder on the Nile in 1946, he had this to say: "An Agatha Christie play but a poor one. At this time of day, such a set-up needs to have character interest, ingenuity of plot, and excitement. This piece falls down on them all." Mr. Buckham, I second your opinion.

It's an evening of ordinary murder-mystery fare. A cast of stock characters arrives for its cruise up the Nile, and (unsurprisingly) it seems that nearly everyone knows one or more of the others by some strange coincidence. There's the newlywed couple pursued by a stalker, the sleuthing Canon Pennefather, the narcissistic aunt and her acquiescent niece, the loud-mouthed bachelor, the German doctor ... you get the idea: plenty of archetypes to prompt the question "whodunit?" when one of them is suddenly murdered. A floating game of Clue ensues, though with relatively predictable winds in the river that may not leave you gasping at the culprit's reveal. Christie's proceedings in this case are at times drawn out and forced – especially as the details of the crime are unraveled. Yet, for all the shortcomings of the writing (especially in comparison with the marvelously ingenious Christie we get in works like The Mousetrap), a few standout performances manage to save the day – and the play – in Different Stages' production.

As Pennefather, for instance, Don Owen livens up the duller moments of the script with a welcome verve. The curiosity and sense of duty with which Owen imbues his character's de facto detective's badge is largely the reason that we remain engaged in the proceedings at hand. Also of special note are the performances of Carrie H. Stephens as new bride Kay Mostyn and Tyler Jones as the rebellious Smith. Both Stephens and Jones keep it real by creating believable, accessible characters in the midst of much melodrama. Though the evening does include a few admittedly mediocre performances as well, the majority of the cast is able to keep this ship afloat most of the time.

Ivor Brown of the Observer also reviewed that West End opening of Murder on the Nile over a half-century ago. His conclusion? "We leave with a sense of conflict." Though Brown's comment specifically concerned the play's surprisingly heavy ending, I can say the same for Different Stages' production. In this case, though, the conflict lies in a play of substandard writing for the master of her genre, rescued by a handful of engaging performances – a lifeboat just sturdy enough to make it to shore.

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