The set-up: A remote island. One lonely house. Ten guests who've never met their host. And a creepy nursery rhyme called "Ten Little Soldiers," which tells how each one gets bumped off. When the guests start dying, the plot thickens like clotted cream, because the murderer must be among them.
The execution: The Alley Theater's annual "Summer Chills" production revisits an old audience favorite -- make that, chestnut -- Dame Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None. This ingenious murder mystery, one of her most successful, was first published as a London newspaper serial (1939), then as a novel (1940), then adapted as a play (1943). With each different format, Christie made changes that befit each new variation. She was a master at that (her American publishers changed the title from the original, insensitive, and absolutely politically incorrect one; she changed character names and endings, and yet always retained the story's cozy rush from murder to murder).
The Alley supplies Christie's devious twists and turns with enough polish and sheen to make this musty diamond sparkle like it were dipped in Windex. The lightning flashes with blinding brilliance and the thunder peals in majestic crackles while candlelight ominously lights up the faces of those not yet dead. And the cast, just as polished, relish play acting their stereotypical characters. The wily old veterans practically rub their hands in glee at having to perform for us. They get to be: The callow youth (Adam Van Wagoner), the battleaxe of propriety (Jennifer Harmon), the crusty judge (James Black), the war-beaten general (James Belcher), the sensible young woman (Josie de Guzman), the suspicious servants (David Rainey and Anne Quackenbush), the rash love interest (Todd Waite), the timid doctor (John Tyson) and the lower-class copper (Jeffrey Bean). Everyone overdoes it with just the right amount of stiff-upper-lip Englishness, but they never play down to the material. They pay their respects to the great Dame.
The verdict: As a playwright of gentle, disarming mayhem, Christie knew just what she was doing. This murder mystery is like being tucked under a soft old comforter, safe and warm, while others are stabbed, shot, and poisoned at the foot of the bed. The horrors of life get put in their place, neat and in a row, and we leave feeling satisfied that the wicked get punished and the sort-of good people get their reward. It's not life at all, but it is very fine theater -- perfectly spun for summer.
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Through July 31. For information and tickets, call 713-220-5700 or visit alleytheatre.org