Perhaps one of the greatest honors a deceased writer can aspire to (if in fact the dead aspire to anything) is to have one of their books adapted for the stage. In the case of Agatha Christie, whose output includes the world’s longest running play, The Mousetrap, it comes as no surprise that her mid-1920’s mystery, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, has found its way to a world premiere on the legit stage.
The Alley Theatre presents an adaptation by Mark Shanahan, who also directs, that binds tightly with multiple suspects and drawing-room eloquence that are the hallmarks of the genre.
Christie’s novel, first serialized in the London Evening News in 1925, was her third to feature detective Hercule Poirot.
A couple of years ago, The Alley presented a stage version of Murder on the Orient Express, yet despite its top-notch production values and thespian capital, the play’s post-modern sets and abstract staging was counterintuitive to what makes a story like this really work.
Roger Ackroyd’s set consists of a British country estate living room. There’s a reading room/library dead center and a hallway upper stage left surrounded by an open air set. A leather chair and sofa along with a glass door leading to a quaint garden, and sculpted wood floors project a warm illusion. It’s the quintessential murder mystery setting.
Christie wrote 35 plays and novels and over 50 short stories with Poirot as the main character. There’s no shortage of character traits or uncanny skills displayed by the mustachioed sleuth. The opening act starts when the play’s other main character, sort of the narrator of the tale, nearby neighbor Dr. Sheppard (Christopher Salazar), first meets Ackroyd and then returns to the scene when he hears of Ackroyd’s death. When introduced, Poirot is under another name, seeking anonymity as a retired farmer. David Sinai plays the sleuth with just the right amount of arrogant intelligence.
Oddly, a few Christie titles that are repeatedly made into movies somehow dumb down the entire repertoire. After two high profile ‘70s-era movie adaptations, both remade recently, who doesn’t know the killer(s) in Murder on the Orient Express or Death On the Nile?
The murder of Roger Ackroyd smells fresh. The familiar landmarks like a decanter of whisky or a lightning storm outside, not to mention a plethora of apt suspects, only lend credence to the inevitable reveal and conclusion.
There’s the tendency to want to second guess who done it with each newly introduced character. With at least ten suspects, you’re finished speculating before the second act.
The coolest stage stunt involves a knife thrown in the heat of an argument. Previously the front part of the stage revealed a small section that dropped open to reveal a staircase. It’s here one of the suspects dispatches said knife. The actor palms the knife at the same time he throws it. Simultaneously, a knife materializes on the floor next to another character. These aren’t circus tricks, these are actors, and this is first rate theater.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd runs at the Alley Theatre until August 27.