Certain Agatha Christie plays work better on stage than others, The Mousetrap (of course) Ten Little Indians and Witness for the Prosecution, while others don’t exploit the opportunities a live performance offers to shock and intrigue the audience. At the risk of sounding grisly, seeing a victim expire is generally more entertaining than hearing another character describe it, punctuated by an offstage shriek. Like other pieces by Christie, “Towards Zero” has solid character development, unexpected turns, and more than one suspect. It focuses on one murder, the death of Lady Tressilian, a dowager whose demise will release of a fair sum of money. Naturally.
Neville Strange has arranged a fortnight in the country with his new wife, Kay and his ex-wife, Audrey. Neville believes that adults can be civilized about such matters, though the practical outcome is far less satisfactory. After coincidentally seeing Audrey on a shopping excursion and suggesting she join them on holiday, their time together feels awfully tense, and subsequent catastrophe seems imminent. Together for the not so festive festivities are old school chum Thomas, Kay’s rakish friend Ted, housekeeper Mary and butler, Treves. When Lady Tressilian is found in bed bed, savagely bashed to death, the household is sent into a tailspin and the authorities (Superintendent Battle and Inspector Leach) duly summoned.
I would never suggest that Christie uses a formula, simply because she created a paradigm that other writers took advantage of, without bothering to do the difficult work. Towards Zero introduces the idea that most murders are better explored by considering the interpersonal history of those involved, rather than the immediate facts. As we might expect, certain attitudes and outbursts, revelatory conversations and fortuitous discoveries tend to take us down one path and another, some more helpful than others. In the world of dramatized murder mysteries, it is a given that dealing in mere appearances can only lead to frustration. That being said, if there are too many false solutions, the compulsive sleight of hand can feel contrived and belabored, and nobody wants that. The ultimate answer to Towards Zero, the suspect who actually took Lady Tressilian’s life is alarming, though more in retrospect than when the revelation comes. It is, I suppose, a matter of debate, whether the logic that Christie engages is plausible enough to feel earned. Though Towards Zero might be a bit of a reach, Christie’s casual ghoulishness always feels delicious and tingly.
Rover Dramawerks presents Towards Zero playing October 22nd- November 14th, 2015. 221 West Parker Street, Suite 580, Plano, Texas 75023. 972-849-0358. www.roverdramawerks.com