REVIEW WRITTEN BY NEAL ZOREN
For Digital First Media
Innate curiosity does its job as audiences watch “The Mysterious Affair at Styles,” Jared Reed’s stage adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1916 novel that introduced fastidious Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot to the reading public.
Although some details about characters, relationships, and motives remain muddy in Reed’s first couple of scenes at Media’s Hedgerow Theatre, those good old standbys, mystery and suspense, quickly take over with clarification and definition in their wake. Once the inevitable murder takes place, you become so enmeshed in figuring out the killer, and how he or she perpetrated the crime, you put any lingering confusion aside and become engrossed with studying character behavior, monitoring Poirot’s investigative techniques, and being attentive to possible clues.
You become as absorbed in inquisitiveness as Poirot. Once basic exposition is out of the way, Reed’s script and production becomes taut and direct, concentrating on the death of woman whose grip on property and fortune might motivate any guest or resident at Styles to kill her. Zoran Kovcic is entertaining as Poirot, and Reed is careful to plant enough conversation about strychnine, how it behaves chemically, and who has access to it, to keep you guessing along with the detective.
It is your nosiness that carries the day. While Reed’s staging becomes increasingly entertaining, and several performers do well with key moments, wonder supersedes involvement in this production. Yes, you are at the edge of the seat and constantly thinking, but you’re more hungry for new information that might let you solve the case than in every line, gesture, or leer Reed or his cast offer. Except for Kovcic’s Poirot, you take lonely fleeting interest in any character as more than a type or a device for learning what happened. Intensity develops as suspense does. Reed’s is a good, solid production that gains in foreboding apprehension as it proceeds. Mystery is what audiences come for with Christie, and mystery is delivered with dividends. By the time Kovcic’s Poirot identifies the culprit, in one of those time-honored scenes in which all of the suspects are gathered in one room, with police at all doors, you are bursting to know who did it, and that is the ultimate mark of success with plays like “Styles.”
Richer, more textured productions of Christie are possible, as exemplified by Adam Immerwahr’s current bon-bon presentation of “The Mousetrap” at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre, but Reed and company get the basics right and give you a good, satisfying time.
Adapting a play from literature is tricky. The page can supply much more subtlety and detail than the stage, while the theater has the advantage of showing more via nuance and wit.
Reed smartly concentrates on the particularities, red herrings included, of Poirot’s case. He creates an atmosphere of suspense but at the expense of a milieu that says more than the minimum about the people at Styles or their way of life.
Introduction to the characters comes during a car ride between two of them, a leisurely gentleman who could inherit Styles and the wealth attached to it, and a World War I officer who thinks he would like to be a detective in civilian life. Their information and descriptions are complete but difficult to follow. The details are too many and come too fast. You are processing one fact as two more come at you.
From a theatrical point of view, Styles is sparse when we see it. People must stand awkwardly in an odd composition as if waiting for something to happen. Reed doesn’t include a casual drawing room scene that really lets us see characters and make judgments about them. They speak, but their words seem as stiff and stilted as their posture. Furniture is absent, and when we finally do see a divan, it’s wretched. The opening scenes alienate rather than engage. There’s none of the easily felicity Christie manages so well. Movement of doorways take precedence over the establishment of setting and place. The scenes in which people gather are the ones Reed may want to improve if he continues to work on the script of “Styles.”
No matter. The murder solves all. Poirot and clues take center stage, and “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” turns from a hodgepodge into a play that immerses you to its revealing conclusion.
Zoran Kovcic has become a master at playing wise characters, Poirot among them. He is supported well by several of the Hedgerow regulars.