Death on the Nile

Contemporary crime dramas bend toward the bizarre — plots twist around creepy marriages, spooky adolescents and a menu of increasingly peculiar sexual fetishes. In comparison, Agatha Christie's whodunits, with their old-fashioned love triangles and tidy, almost bloodless murders, seem positively quaint. But the Alley Theatre's elegant production of the classic Death on the Nile is filled with such memorable characters and artful red herrings, it hardly matters how obvious the climax will be to any Law & Order watcher.

The entire story takes place in the sunny saloon of a steamer ship floating along the Nile during the early years of the 20th century. All decked out with the Victorian glamour of inlaid paneling, dark floral carpeting and a wall full of mahogany windows framed by crisp creamy curtains, this absolutely breathtaking set by Kevin Rigdon is reason enough to pass up TV criminals for a night. Even the lighting is gorgeous, moving from deep azure during the day to a crimson red as the Egyptian sun sets. And Alejo Vietti's beautiful costumes add visual glitz. They flow and shimmer and rumple like hand-loomed silk and linen should. The colors take on the rich hues of old-fashioned dyes, and the whole world created here is compelling and artfully authentic.

At the opening, we meet a handful of quintessential Christie eccentrics. There's the hilariously difficult Miss ffoliot-ffoulkes (Annalee Jefferies), a matriarch who wears big hats and long scarves and enjoys bossing everyone around, especially her timidly sweet niece Christina Grant (Elizabeth Heflin). Poor relation Christina, who's beholden to her rich aunt for the Egyptian trip, is so kind she's able to handle her old aunt's constant nagging with a firm and very Irish good humor. Her genuine sweetness manages to attract the attentions of the unconventional "Mr. Smith" (Todd Waite), who becomes the subject of suspicion after a woman is murdered. Of course, there's a doctor on board; every Christie tale has at least one exotic, and Dr. Bessner (Jeffrey Bean) fills that position as the foreigner who carries long-held animosities toward certain wealthy people, some of whom just happen to be traveling on the same boat. And there's a French maid played by the lovely Melissa Pritchett. She brings to the story all the rude tartiness we'd expect a prim English writer to see in a French girl. Adding to the mise-en-scène are local bead sellers played by Alley favorites Paul Hope and James Belcher, who are clearly enjoying their positions as the story's clowns. And then there's David Rainey's Egyptian Steward, who totes gin fizzes and double brandies with hilariously obsequious grace. This wacky group of travelers and workers sits at the elbows of the beautiful people at the center of Christie's tale.


Death on the Nile

Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-228-8421.

Through July 29. $19-$29.

Newlyweds Simon (Chris Hutchison) and Kay Mostyn (Christian Corp) would be deliriously happy were it not for the fact that they are being chased by Simon's ex, Jacqueline De Severac (Elizabeth Bunch). It would appear Jacqueline hasn't gotten over the fact that Simon dumped her for Kay, a very wealthy heiress — and the scorned lady has been relentlessly following the newlyweds throughout their honeymoon, wanting only to make them as miserable as she is. Trying to throw Jacqueline off their tracks, the lovers have jumped on board the little paddle steamer. Helping Kay is Canon Pennefather (John Tyson), the clergyman who has watched over the young woman's inheritance since her parents died. He appears to have a lot of control over the poor little rich girl's pocketbook, and everybody knows that murder and money go together nicely. Of course, when Jacqueline does show up at the last minute, the stage is set for at least one homicide, if not more.

It's great fun to watch these characters move through this dreamy world of beautiful things. Director James Black keeps all three acts moving swiftly, and he finds the humor in all the nasty cuts these upper-crust cranks swipe at each other. But for all their picking and carping and even, yes, killing, they have human hearts capable of magnanimity and pain. Nobody in Christie's world is one of those complete freaks of the type we might meet on TV. The joy of Christie is that her characters are strange without being grotesque.

This simple truth might be why Christie, with all her simplicity, can still compete with the more complex crime narratives on contemporary television. The characters on TV aren't anyone we'd want to meet on a ship. Christie, on the other hand, not only builds a lovely world for us to visit, she introduces us to a group of enjoyable eccentrics who make good company for an evening.


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