Agatha Christie's Verdict: Murder Most Bergmanesque

Verdict by Agatha Christie
Directed by Noel MacDuffie
The Heights Players
Weekends through November 18, 2012

Since 1957 the Heights Players in Brooklyn Heights have continually presented quality community theater, and their latest offering maintains the high standard theater-goers have come to expect from this venerable company. Verdict is a curio from British mystery writer Agatha Christie, famous for her whodunit novels, stage adaptations of those novels, and original plays (the most famous of which is Witness for the Prosecution).Verdict, written solely for the stage, is a psychological living room play in which a murder does occur, but regarding the perpetrator's identity there is nothing to figure out: the murderer is revealed bluntly and in no uncertain terms. The meat of the matter comes from the complications that follow that revelation.

The central character of the play is Karl Hendryk, a professor who along with his wife and her first cousin have immigrated to England, escaping persecution on the Continent in an unidentified country. Hendryk is esteemed by both students and faculty. His wife, Anya, is an invalid enduring a slow deterioration due to an unnamed disease. Anya is looked after by Lisa Koletzky, Anya's first cousin, who followed the Hendryks into exile. Lisa and Karl are covertly smitten with one another. Anya regrets leaving her home country, dislikes England, and blames Karl for their forced immigration: Karl had protected a persecuted scholar, and the Hendryks were deemed guilty by association and faced imprisonment or worse.

Karl is forced by circumstances to reluctantly take on a frivolous private student, Helen Rollander, the pampered daughter of Sir William Rollander, a rich and influential gentleman who coerces Karl into tutoring his “little darling” by promising to have Anya's condition treated with a promising experimental drug. Helen is accustomed to getting anything she desires, which her rich father always provides. She claims she is in love with Karl, and in her delusional mind is convinced that Karl is in love with her. A murder is committed, and Karl is thrown into a moral dilemma with dire consequences.

The play basically asks, how far can a moral idealist go in keeping to his principles no matter what, even if those he loves get harmed? The play was not a grand hit when it opened in 1958, seemingly because the audience expected another whopping Agatha Christie formulaic whodunit thriller. Instead, they got something skewed more to the cerebral. A modern audience without 1958's baggage of expectations will find Verdict engaging just as it is: a compelling chamber drama that includes the kind of ruminations and personal struggles found in the films of Ingmar Bergman.

Director Noel MacDuffie keeps Ms. Christie's carefully plotted momentum going at both an even and brisk pace as required. He also possesses a discerning knack for fine-tuned casting. Raymond O. Wagner portrays both sides of Karl Hendryk's nature, the genial committed teacher and the tortured moralist, both with the lightness and severe intensity of such contrasting character traits. Rose Ortiz's Anya is convincingly sympathetic, pathetic, and disgruntled. Regarding Lisa Koletzky as portrayed by Ashley Voos, you can immediately sense the character's deep inner conflicts as she ultimately gets put through a decidedly wrenching ordeal.

Bernard Feineman's Dr. Stoner, the physician who attends Anya, fully represents a compassionate and caring doctor as well as a close family friend. Jessica Giannone's portrayal of the superficially sweet, pretty, and delusional Helen Rollander is totally convincing. Her father is played by David Shakopi with just the right blend of gentlemanly formality and manipulative nastiness. Wrong-headed Detective Inspector Ogden is played to a British tee by Lucy Apicello. The Detective's sidekick, Police Sergeant Peace, played by Ethan M. Labourdette, follows his superior about like an appropriately obedient puppy. Beverly Gregory is a perfect cockney busybody as Mrs. Roper, the housekeeper who ultimately serves to thicken the plot. Cameron MacIntosh portrays Lester Cole, an enthusiastic and committed student of Professor Hendryk. I have seen Mr. MacIntosh in three different productions, and his poise and stage presence just get better and better.

The period costumes by Ayano Ganaha are handsome and truly reflect '50s style. In addition to directing, Noel MacDuffie created the wonderfully designed '50s living room period set. He is also responsible for the bright, atmospheric, and even lighting, which perfectly illuminated the actors no matter where they were positioned.

I found Verdict thoroughly engaging and entertaining, and well worth the short trip to downtown Brooklyn. - Jay Reisberg

Photo credit: Roger Gonzalez of localtheaterny.com

jay-reisberg-photo

Mr. Reisberg is a UCLA film school grad, professional singer, comedian, and bon vivant at large.

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