Witness for the Prosecution is a six-course meal of a play, a lip-smacking, eye-rolling, stomach-rumbling grand buffet of – wait for it – vintage fifties, English-style murder, complete with basso-profundo defense barristers, harrumphing prosecutors, astringent judges, silly young secretaries, and a wide-eyed, decent, innocent young defendant – or so he seems. It is the sort of plot-heavy courtroom procedural so full of twists and turns that it might have been dreamed up by – Agatha Christie. And it was!
Let’s state it plainly: if you are into this sort of thing, as I am – the play as puzzlebox, in which you sit in the audience wondering who did it? and what does that evidence mean? and what’s going on? you’re going to be in clover. You’re going to think you’ve died and gone to heaven – heaven being public television, and more specifically the set of “Rumpole of the Bailey,” or something like that. If you’re not, you may be, well…a little bored. This is not Angels in America. You’re not going to care about the characters, except as a means to an end, with the end being…solving the murder, and more specifically, resolving the guilt or innocence of one Mr. Leonard Vole (Jeffries Thaiss).
To divulge as much of the story as possible without spoiling any of the fun: young Mr. Vole, a man of some charm and ambition but without much by way of visible means of support, is back from the war with his German bride, Romaine (Andrea Cirie). He has cultivated the friendship of a Miss French, a wealthy older woman whose designs may be maternal, or romantic. As the play opens, Miss French is murdered, and Leonard is the primary suspect.
He has gone with his solicitor, Mr. Mayhew (James Slaughter) to the offices of the great barrister, Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Bob Ari). (In England, solicitors serve as general-purpose transactional lawyers and barristers confine their practice to trials; barristers are generally engaged by solicitors on behalf of their clients, rather than by clients directly.) Vole admits that he visited Miss French on the night she was killed, but insists that he was home by nine-thirty, the time of death – an alibi which can be confirmed only by Romaine. But when the lawyers interview Romaine she is, to put it mildly, a little unconvincing.
The rest of the play is given over to the constant unraveling and re-raveling of Leonard’s story. We go to a courtroom with a fabulously dyspeptic prosecutor (Alan Wade), whose throat-clearing sounds like the screaming of walruses, and a cheerfully pompous judge (Jim Scopeletis). (“A cat brush?” he asks Vole, with the latter in the witness chair. “What is a cat brush?” “That’s a brush for cats,” Vole responds helpfully.) Sir Wilfrid eviscerates the testimony of the prosecutor’s witnesses, especially that of Miss French’s housekeeper, Janet Mackenzie (Monica Lijewski), who claims to have heard Leonard and Miss French at nine-thirty, and Leonard seems to be in the clear. But then the prosecutor calls his surprise witness, and….
Well, let’s not go there. If you want to know what happens, go see the show. In the meantime, let me tell you that it is almost ideally cast. Ari, a large, jowly man with a deep, resonant voice, is everyone’s concept of the majestic English barrister, a furnace of rage and drama banked by a canny intellect. Wade, as his courtroom opposite, gives us another type of successful trial lawyer – persnickety, exacting, annoying, always looking for the edge and often finding it. And as the career (as opposed to courtroom) opposite, Thaiss as Vole seems perpetually the young man on the make, charming though not wholly sincere, ambitious though impoverished. As for Cirie, who lit up the 2008 Contemporary American Theater Festival, she does everything the difficult role of Romaine requires.
But more than that: the whole production is afire with atmospherics. It smells of England, as it was in the middle of the last century, from the fabulous set (the undervalued James Wolk creates a beautiful barrister’s office, and has it dissolve into an impressively accurate reproduction of the Old Bailey) to the pitch-perfect dialects (dialect coach Nancy Krebs deserves recognition) to the sense of hierarchy: the frivolous secretary (Carolyn Myers, doing good work), defers, however gracelessly, to the clerk Carter (the excellent R. Scott Williams), who defers to the solicitor Mayhew, who defers to Sir Wilfrid. It is all done subtly, and in code – Mayhew, for example, asks after Carter’s health, and Sir Wilfrid, a few minutes later, asks after Mayhew’s family – but it is done, and with dispatch, so we understand with surprising quickness the assumptions that prevail in this land, nearly sixty years ago and four thousand miles away from our own.
The uniform success of this production, and its enormous cast (seventeen actors, playing nineteen roles) is in part due to Christie’s plotting, but also to John Going’s direction. There is – and I don’t want to sound sappy here, but I think it’s true – a certain amount of love in what Going puts on the stage. Take, for example, Janet Mackenzie’s testimony as she describes the knitting she intended to do with her friend on her night out; it is a small thing, and immensely tedious for most of us, but we can see that for Janet, it is her singular chance to practice something close to art, and this small epiphany is due to Going as director, as well as Lijewski as actor. There are several other examples, each of similar impact.
Witness for the Prosecution isn’t Stoppard or Albee, but in its own way it is intellectually challenging, and requires your most serious attention. If a murder mystery is not your cup of tea, don’t waste your time. But if it is, you won’t get much better than this.
Witness for the Prosecution
By Agatha Christie
Directed by John Going
Produced by Olney Theatre Center
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: 2 hours and 50 minutes, with two intermissions.