Published On: Thu, Oct 10th, 2019

Murder stylishly executed in ‘Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Nile’ at Town & Country Players

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Brian Keller as Simon Mostyn and Brianna Lynn as Kay Ridgeway, Elaine Wallace as Miss Ffoliot Ffoulkes (front) (Photo: Jessica Briggs Photography)

By John Millman-Dwyer

With the witching season upon us, theaters seem to be turning toward the mysterious and the ghoulish: An Agatha Christie mystery at Town and Country, an early Hitchcock movie adapted to the stage at the Langhorne Players, a musical to die for at Music Mountain, and “Rocky Horror” is back at the Playhouse. Mayhem abounds!

The first show I will take a shot at is about a shooting onboard a boat that is going down the Nile. This is “Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Nile.” Originally conceived as a play called “Moon on the Nile,” Christie decided that it wasn’t working as she wanted and decided to make it straight fiction. It was a short story in 1937 and retitled “Death on the Nile,” where it included a Detective Parker Pyne. It became a full novel that year, but with the more splashy Belgian detective Hercule Poirot as the detective.

Paige Gardner as Christina Grant (Photo: Jessica Briggs Photography)

Flash forward seven years to 1944, and an actor friend was looking to play Hercule Poirot on stage. By this time Poirot was an iconic mystery sleuth and the friend recognized him as a plum role. But by now, Christie had tired of Poirot and wanted to do a piece without him. She adapted the story, consolidating characters but keeping the basic plot. In the new play, now called “Murder on the Nile,” she made up a new role for her friend.

The story begins with the passengers coming onboard and being welcomed by the steward (Jeffrey E. Milstein) and an annoying Egyptian bead seller (Jen Feder) that badgers one and all to buy her beads. Milstein and Feder bring the needed Middle Eastern ambience to the boards with both decked out appropriately in Northern African garb and Feder doing a great job portraying a very amusing purveyor of beads, postcards or whatever else that could shake money off of the rich travelers who are boarding the boat.

Barney Stone as Dr. Bessner (Photo: Jessica Briggs Photography)

The first passengers seen are the wealthy and haughty Helen Ffolliat-Ffoulkes and her not so well-off niece, sweet and shy Christina Grant.  Ffoliat-Ffoulkes has an opinion on most things, passing judgment on the boat, its rooms and on the passenger list. The older aunt incessantly gives her niece advice as to who to take conversation with and who to avoid. The dowager does discover and thoroughly approves that beautiful socialite Kay Mostyn is on board. Kay Mostyn is better known as Kay Ridgeway, daughter of Martin Ridgeway, the richest man in England. She recently married Simon Mostyn, an affable, handsome well-heeled but penniless man.

Also on board is one William Smith, a brash and cheeky young man who has booked a fare on the Lotus, the paddle steamer that is the setting of this adventure. He is seen as someone not to talk to, as per Ffoliat-Ffolkes. A physician, Dr. Bessner (Barney Stone) who had dealings with Kay’s father, is on board. Kay’s French maid, Louise (Jesse Roy), is accompanying her, as well. One of two surprise travelers, who made their bookings later, are Kay’s uncle and guardian, clergyman Canon Pennefather and Simon Mostyn’s jilted lover, Jacqueline de Severac.

Jeffrey Milstein as the Steward (Photo: Jessica Briggs Photography)

As the title of the play tells you, a murder does take place. I won’t spoil it by telling who got murdered. After that is the additional question of who did it.

The clever twists and turns of the plot are there as expected in a Christie work, as are the quirky characters. This play is both mystery and soap opera, with each character from maid to wealthy socialite, getting their moment to shine, and also show why they too might be a possible murderer. The primary relationships that are brought to our attention are all skillfully drawn by this ensemble cast. Veteran actress Elaine Wallace and the excellent Paige Gardner hone out the relationship of the wealthy older relative, Helen Ffoliot-Ffoulkes and the younger, poorer ward, Ms. Grant. The ward, her niece, is being pursued by the loner on the boat, William Smith, played by Evan Creedon, who is marvelous at throwing off a flip remark and, for all appearances, being a ne’er do well.

The love triangle of Simon Mostyn, his wife Kay and Jacqueline was riveting and intense. Kudos across the board for the fine acting of respectively Brian Keller, Brianna Lynn and Brittany Delaware. Keller has the calm, cool charm with a perfect English accent that any woman would feel irresistible. Lynn has sophisticated beauty but a vulnerable sincerity, making her a perfect Kay Ridgeway. Delaware is a riveting femme fatale, who is hard to take your eyes off of. She creates a menacing presence as the scorned lover, who is obsessed in getting back her ex-fiancee from her rich former friend. This actress does an amazing job.

Brittany Delaware as Jacqueline de Severac (Photo: Jessica Briggs Photography)

Peter Plante portrays Cannon Pennefather, who as Kay’s uncle, guardian and a cleric has a vested interest in Kay and the avoidance of sin, especially murder. Plante does a journeyman’s job as the insightful but suspect cleric. I would have liked to have seen the character with a few more idiosyncratic traits, whether slumped shoulders or a verbal peculiarity, to make him a more interesting man of the cloth. Quirky traits seem to abound in Christie’s drawing room mysteries. Some regular piece of business would also allow him to go on with some of his longer narrative exposition and be looser with the dialogue. What to do with your hands, if you are standing in place, becomes an issue if you are not lost in what you are saying and, then, the movements are fluid. A character affectation would add to making the cannon more interesting and in making the monologues flow better.

In Act 1 there also is a scene where Ffoliat-foulkes loses a scarf. If someone loses something and others are looking for it, it would seem to me that the character may have a moment of bewilderment, but then would go over the entire place, and would be more involved with the people who are looking with her for it. It seemed a little off to look minimally in her own space and then to show gratitude to what appeared to be no one in particular.

Regardless of my quibbling, the show is a winner — thoroughly entertaining and keeps you guessing to the end. Kudos to director David Swartz for the fast-paced drama and character development done by this troupe. The last scene is totally unexpected and shows how both life and death are filled with surprises.

The show continues thru Oct. 19, and tickets are available online.

Agatha Christie – perfect for the pre-Halloween season. Boo!

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