'Witness for the Prosecution at Bristol RIverside: Stylish but staid
Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution, which originated as a 1925 short story, isn’t exactly a novelty. The play was produced in London and on Broadway in the mid-1950s, netting a couple of Tony Awards for acting. The material probably reached its zenith in Billy Wilder’s noirish 1957 film adaptation starring Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, and Charles Laughton. The several television versions have included a 2016 BBC mini-series, and yet another film appears to be in the works.
Bristol Riverside Theatre has exhumed Witness for the Prosecution as the concluding show of its 30th anniversary season. The only question is why. What was once thrilling, even shocking, now seems rather staid and old-fashioned, peopled with stock characters and misogynistic tropes.
We’re used to more. In this not-quite-post-Law and Order era, the police procedural and courtroom drama have become increasingly sophisticated. Along with surprise, the genre now delivers cultural relevance and social commentary (Law and Order: SVU and American Crime), brooding atmosphere and humor (Fargo), even metaphysics (True Detective).
Witness for the Prosecution has only the requisite plot twists, and even these take a while in coming. Directed by Susan D. Atkinson (Bristol Riverside’s founding director), this production is handsome and competent, but somewhat slow and stately, running about 2 hours, 45 minutes, including one intermission.
The story is both a murder mystery and a not-terribly-convincing inquiry into the vagaries of human nature. An attractive but penniless young American, Leonard Vole (Matt Leisy), is facing murder charges in the death of a rich older woman, Emily French, whom he has befriended. But he couldn’t have killed her — not if his alibi, that he was home with his wife at the time of the murder, is the truth.
Vole’s chief advocate is the lordly British barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Bristol Riverside’s artistic director, Keith Baker). But Robarts’ case depends on his client’s seemingly unreliable German-born wife, Romaine Vole (Eleanor Handley). Opposing Robarts in court is his longtime nemesis, Mr. Myers (Leonard C. Haas). Another principal is French’s devoted housekeeper, Janet Mackenzie (Sharon Alexander), who has every reason to resent the fact that her employer has changed her will in favor of Vole.
All the leading players are fine, including the commanding Baker and Leisy, fresh off the Broadway national tour of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. Leisy conveys the affability that would have endeared him to Mrs. French, the dismay of a putatively innocent man caught up in the British justice system — and just enough slickness to keep us wondering about his motives.
Handley is elegant and precise as the woman Vole rescued after World War II from Berlin, and who may — or may not — repay that good deed with her testimony. (It makes a certain sense that the two most suspect characters in the play are foreigners.)
To round out the large cast, Atkinson has enlisted community members to fill lesser roles. Jason Simms’ stylish revolving set gives us both Robarts’ book-lined chambers and a courtroom in the Old Bailey, and Elizabeth Atkinson’s jazzy sound design tries to liven up the proceedings.
Witness for the Prosecution. Through May 28 at Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe St., Bristol. Tickets start at $33. Information: 215-785-0100 or brtstage.org.
Published at Mon, 15 May 2017 21:07:16 +0000