"Ten Little Indians" is the ultimate whodunit, a classic 1939 novel from Dame Agatha Christie, who adapted it for the stage in 1943. It has been imitated countless times, and at least a half-dozen films have been based on the story, which is also known by its alternative title, "And Then There Were None."
The Lazy Susan Dinner Theatre has mounted an enjoyable production of this old chestnut that is fresh, engrossing and suspense-filled. That's a substantial accomplishment, because so many of the play's conventions are by now familiar.
Ten strangers are invited to an isolated mansion on an English island by a mysterious, unknown host. As they prepare for dinner, a disembodied voice announces that each of them is hiding a terrible crime for which punishment was evaded. Almost immediately, the guests start dying off -- murdered, it seems, by the unseen master of the house. As the bodies pile up, the stranded guests realize there is no way off the island, and they begin to suspect each other.
Christie added a delightfully inventive twist: Each death is foretold in a poem, "Ten Little Indians," which is hanging over the fireplace, and each murder accompanied by the disappearance of an Indian figurine from the mantelpiece. To say much more would dilute the tale's pleasures for the uninitiated or forgetful.
Veteran director Hans Bachman moves the story right along, pushing his cast of 11 through the plodding and exposition-filled first half of Act One, in which all the characters are necessarily introduced in turn. Things start to liven up with the first death, and then it's a roller-coaster ride to the finish, as evidence shifts and various theories play out in one's mind. This might be called an audience-participation show, as half the fun is guessing who the murderer is and trying to catch the Indians vanishing.
The performances are first rate, and accent coach Carol Strachen deserves praise for the authentic-sounding English accents. She has matched characters with the proper inflections of their class in the stratified society. English accents are the downfall of many local theaters.
The stage at the Lazy Susan is shallow but unusually wide to accommodate dinner seating. This has the benefit of allowing for a sprawling country mansion set, a colorful and nicely detailed "group design" from the theater crew that adds a dose of realism and gives the actors, many of whom are onstage simultaneously, plenty of room for their mischief. It also allows for a bit of misdirection that adds to the suspense as things deadly or devious happen when the eye is drawn elsewhere.
The trick for both author and actors is to keep suspicion equally dispersed among the remaining houseguests as their numbers diminish. Christie did her part by carefully varying the emphasis on characters, and the actors do theirs by subtly calibrating their performances to match the changing circumstances. Bachman is one of the most accomplished area directors, and his abilities become more evident as the yarn unfolds.
This is an ensemble piece, but several performances are noteworthy. Shawn D. Jackson is Emily Brent, a judgmental and prissy old hen with a stern face and a riveting stare that is positively spooky. Christopher Damanda generates considerable energy with a vivid characterization of careless and callow Anthony Marsten, and Lazy Susan regular C. Gonzales-Stanley, who also designed the 1930s costumes, is a wonderfully crusty detective William Blore.
"Ten Little Indians" will be performed through March 30 at the Lazy Susan Dinner Theatre, Route 1 at Furnace Road in Woodbridge. Performances are at 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, at 8:30 p.m. Saturdays and at 7:30 p.m. Sundays. For reservations or dining information, call 703-550-7384.