The rustic Lazy Susan Dinner Theatre was jammed to the rafters one recent night, the crowd apparently eager for an "Appointment With Death." But fear not, the date turned out to be with Agatha Christie and one of her whodunits, which in this case turned out to be a stylishly acted romp offering suspense and laughs.

The pressure to take Christie's work seriously often results in carefully somber performances that stifle atmosphere and suspense. But here director Hans Bachmann keeps the mystery light, which helps gloss over its structural weaknesses.

"Appointment With Death" is one of Dame Agatha's lesser works, but Bachmann's cast of 14 creates an appealing tone that holds audience interest. That was especially important the night the show was reviewed, as the large crowd caused the mid-show intermission to drag on for over 40 minutes. (This is dinner theater, so final drinks and coffee are poured and checks are issued during intermission, with cast members augmenting the wait staff.) It was almost 11:30 p.m. before the story wrapped up, but the date-night audience seemed rapt until the end.

Those familiar with the 1938 novel or the 1988 film will expect a Hercule Poirot mystery. Christie removed the Belgian detective from the story for the 1945 stage version used here. She also changed the identity of the killer, which made for a highly unlikely ending. Removing Poirot was risky because there is a definite vacuum created by a story development in the second act. The empty space could easily be filled by the famously eccentric sleuth, but Christie gambled that she could keep things interesting with lesser characters and by tossing around a number of red herrings. Thanks to some strong performances here, the gamble pays off.

"Appointment With Death" takes us to a Holy Land tour in 1937, dropping us first in the busy lobby of the King Solomon Hotel in Jerusalem and then at a sightseeing camp at Petra. The tour group is primarily composed of Southern-bred Americans and Brits, making for an interesting mix of well-developed accents. (Note to actors playing Brits: it's kwi-neen, not kwi-nine, for quinine. )

The Americans are mostly members of the odd Boynton family. Domineering matriarch Mrs. Boynton (Wendy Wilmer) has an eerie, vicelike grip on her grown stepchildren. From the mentally unstable Ginevra (Missy Ann Wilmoth) to diffident Lennox (Christopher Lee Damanda) and his frustrated wife, Nadine (Kylie McLean), to hangdog Raymond (Dave Joria), they all seem to be under some strange spell. But Raymond starts to wake up when he falls for lovely Sarah King (Elizabeth Parsons), an insightful English doctor whose steely resolve compels her to match wits and wills with the old woman. The intrigue begins, and somebody ends up dead.

While most of the cast plays it straight, Wilmer goes somewhat over the top as unpleasant Mrs. Boynton. She revels in acid comments, which she augments with evil glowers and smug satisfaction. It's a meaty role, and she goes at it with everything but the steak sauce, becoming the audience favorite in the process. Parsons vividly combines sexual allure with intelligence as Dr. King, while McLean is low-key but effectively reveals there is turmoil bubbling below the resigned expression on her face. These are rich performances.

Several of the Brits, most notably Cathy Kidwell as ridiculously haughty Lady Westholme and Jan Forbes as irrepressible Alderman Higgs, are colorfully portrayed to the hilt for laughs. Jeffrey Bryce Davidson goes for authenticity as by-the-book Colonel Carbery in the detective role, as Bachmann's formula mixes menace and levity to appealing effect.

"Appointment With Death" continues through March 18 at Lazy Susan Dinner Theatre, Route 1 at Furnace Road, Woodbridge. Performances follow dining, with showtimes 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