Agatha Christie has sold more books than anyone except for the Bible and William Shakespeare. Her play The Mousetrap has been running continuously in London since opening in 1952. In 1953 she adapted one of her early short stories, Traitor Hands, into the play Witness for the Prosecution which played Broadway in 1954 and was turned into an Oscar nominated film by director Billy Wilder in 1957. Witness is being given a solid revival by The Group Rep in North Hollywood and thankfully Christie’s writing is still crisp and fun with several twists and turns. The unemployed Leonard Vole (Patrick Skelton) is brought to the offices of Queen’s Counsel Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Larry Eisenberg) by his solicitor Mrs. Mayhew (Michele Schultz). Vole is about to be arrested for the murder of a recent acquaintance, the elderly (66 year old) spinster Miss French, who had just made him the main beneficiary of her estate. Miss French’s housekeeper, Janet Mackenzie (Sherry Michaels), puts Vole in the room with French at the time of her death. Vole’s only alibi is the testimony of his German wife Romaine (Salome Jens), whom Robarts doesn’t really trust. Besides a loving wife’s testimony, and a foreigner’s at that, won’t sit that well with the jury. Yet Sir Wilfrid takes on the case because he believes Vole and all the women seem to be attracted to him.
The play is a stodgier affair than the lively film adaptation which, in addition to the star studded cast headed by Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power and Marlene Dietrich, had an additional character played to perfection by the Oscar-nominated Elsa Lanchester. Her character and comic relief are sorely missed here. Director Jules Aaron has briskly staged the proceedings and the three acts and two intermissions come in just under two and a half hours. The production’s faults are in the casting. Much is said about Vole’s charm but Skelton fails to deliver on that. The cast also had problems at the performance I reviewed in getting all their lines out precisely which is essential in a courtroom drama with twisty plot turns. The nuances of the performances are also missing, but might come with more playing time. Jens seems to have the most fun and really comes alive in a scene in the third act where she gets to play more outrageously. Schultz acquits herself best among the large cast. The real star of this production, besides Christie’s writing, is the turntable scenic design by J. Kent Inasy.
Lonny Chapman Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd. in North Hollywood. Ends Mar. 26. www.thegrouprep.com