Whether a hotel, a train or a manor, Agatha Christie set her mysteries in upscale places with enough nooks and crannies to allow plot-essential eavesdropping and clandestine meetings. She populated her settings with characters involved in a variety of relationships. And then she killed one or two of them off and revealed everyone’s secrets. With a finite number of suspects—those present—the murders are solved neatly and satisfyingly by a Christie detective or amateur sleuth.
So it is with Towards Zero, a 1956 adaptation (with Gerald Verner) of Christie’s 1944 novel, now onstage at Theatre Forty. In a seaside house owned by elderly widow Lady Camilla Tressilian (Michele Schultz) are some strange bedfellows. Lady Camilla makes it clear she’s not happy to have “discordant seeds” in her house, but acquiesces.
Thus we have Thomas (Jeremy Schaye), recently returned from an appointment in British Malaya; tennis star Nevile Strange (Christpher Franciosa) and both his ex-wife Audrey (Holly Sidell) and his current wife, the unpleasant Kay (Kristin Towers-Rowles). There’s dedicated servant Mary (Katyana Rocker-Cook) and Kay’s friend Ted (Michael Mullen), staying at a hotel a quick boat ride away. And there’s Lady Camilla’s friend Mathew Treves (John Combs, the standout in a solid cast). Treves is a retired solicitor who witnessed a suspicious accident years earlier.
Death is foreshadowed by one character’s comment, “There’s a suggestion of gunpowder in the air.” And sure enough, two murders come right before intermission. By then, the audience knows enough about each of the surviving characters to begin to form opinions about suspects. In Act Two, Superintendent Battle (Theatre 40 Artistic Director David Hunt Stafford) and Inspector Leach (Hisato Masuyama) arrive to begin the investigation. True suspense arises from secrets revealed and unexpected developments.
Towards Zero is the final of five Christie novels to feature Superintendent Battle, and is considered one of her best stories. It’s classic Christie: fun to watch on the expansive and well-designed Theatre Forty stage and fun to identify (or misidentify) the killer(s). Set designer is Jeff G. Rack. Director is Craig Hissong.
Towards Zero runs through Oct. 22 at Theatre Forty, 241 S. Morena Dr., on the campus of Beverly Hills High School. Tickets are $35 and are available at http://theatre40.org.
Pacific Resident Theatre will hold a world premiere reading of a new musical, The Grasshopper, with book, lyrics, and direction by Academy Award nominee Roger Allers, who co-wrote the book for Broadway’s The Lion King. Music and musical direction are by Genaro Pereira.
The Grasshopper’s hero is Jean de la Fontaine, the brilliant writer of fables, whose gift is to see the animal beneath the “Mask of Respectability.” His bold criticism of tyrants pits him against Louis XIV, and so the King does everything in his power to suppress him. In spite of this, his sharp wit makes him popular with the people. His fables come to life onstage, as characters transform into their true animal selves.
The Grasshopper reading takes place on Saturday, October 7 at 1:00 pm; Pacific Resident Theatre is at 703 Venice Blvd. in Venice.