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theater review

A Muddled 'Murder on the Nile' Struggles to Stay Afloat

By Michael Toscano
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, March 10, 2005; Page PW15

Why would anyone want to murder lovely Kay Ridgeway Mostyn?

After all, she was generous and kind, enjoying her honeymoon floating down the Nile on a paddle steamer. Kay was also very rich. On the other hand, her new husband, Simon Mostyn, is not rich at all -- not until his wife's death. In addition, Kay was being stalked by the slightly unbalanced Jacqueline de Severac, her former best friend and Simon's previous fiancée.

From left, Canon Ambrose Pennefather (Jeffrey Bryce Davidson) and Dr. Bessner (Billy Chace) examine evidence as William Smith (Christopher Damanda) and a steward (Christon Nichole Herring) look on. (Courtesy Of Hans Bachman)

Yet Jacqueline and Simon seem to have airtight alibis, and no one else aboard the seedy boat appears to have a motive. All that can only mean one thing: another Agatha Christie mystery.

"Murder on the Nile" has a long, strange pedigree. It started in 1937 as the novel "Death on the Nile" and featured the famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. When Christie adapted the novel for the London stage in 1946, she dropped Poirot from the story, trying to keep him from overexposure, along with several of the book's more interesting characters. She also radically reworked the ending and changed the name to "Murder on the Nile."

Still not convinced she had it right, Christie re-christened the play again as "Hidden Horizon" when it opened in New York. The 1978 movie, called "Death on the Nile," brought back Poirot, played by Peter Ustinov.

The muddled version the Lazy Susan Dinner Theatre is staging, the original stage adaptation, doesn't seem much like Christie's best work. Although called "Murder on the Nile," all the audience gets is the river and no murder for the first half of the play, which is one very long series of exposition-laden conversations.

One by one, the various passengers/suspects arrive in the observation salon of the paddle steamer, talk about themselves for a while, and then shuffle off. Christie's script labors under the weight of numerous highly improbable coincidences, in which important plot points hinge on characters remembering that they have briefly seen each other in chance encounters elsewhere.

As if suddenly remembering "murder" in the title, Christie finally has a bullet find its mark, only about an hour late and just before intermission. But even that is only a flesh wound. About two minutes in Act Two, the plot finally takes off and death visits the ancient river.

By then, it's obvious who did what to whom. And the rest of the play is spent watching the apparently slower-thinking passengers solve the crimes. Christie can't even decide who should be the detective and has several characters take a crack at it.

The odd thing is that "Death on the Nile" is said to be one of Christie's favorite novels, and the original work is rich with atmosphere, character and plot -- all the things missing from the stage version, despite some hard work by the talented cast at the Lazy Susan.

Directed by Hans Bachman, a boatload of Lazy Susan regulars gamely makes its way through the story, with young character actor Billy Chace adding a nice dash of exotic color as the mysterious Dr. Bessner. Wendy Wilmer goes comically over the top as self-absorbed grand dame Miss ffoliot-ffoulkes. And Jeffrey Bryce Davidson, looking resplendent at one point with a cranberry velvet smoking jacket worn over a black shirt and roman collar, deftly portrays the prickly and slightly shady man of the cloth, Canon Ambrose Pennefather.

Despite being handicapped with a murky script, the actors keep it moving along briskly. Act Two is rather enjoyable, thanks to energetic performances and a finely shaded characterization by Kevin Doyle as the is-he-or-isn't-he-murderous new husband and newer widower, Simon.

Usually a review of a murder mystery should not mention who gets killed. But in this case, with not much else happening in Act One, knowing what is to come allows the discerning viewer to begin stockpiling clues and prepare to solve the crime. And engaging the brain is what makes a whodunit fun.

"Murder on the Nile" continues through March 27 at the Lazy Susan Dinner Theatre, Route 1 at Furnace Road, Woodbridge. Performances are at 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 8:30 p.m. Saturdays and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. For reservations or dining information, call 703-550-7384 or visit www.lazysusan.com.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company