nothing like a good Agatha Christie mystery, and Verdict is nothing
like a good Agatha Christie mystery.
East Bay Express, December, 1998
Neither the grand dame of mystery nor the Shotgunners are at their best in this less-than-thrilling tale of a befuddled professor (Richard Silberg) whose rebuff of a love-struck student (Emily Ackerman) produces tragic results for his wheelchair-bound wife (Erin Merritt) and his wife's comely assistant (Beth Donohue). Christie's usual plot twists and turns are nowhere in evidence as a murder is committed in full view of the audience, thereby causing us to believe that the script will eventually take on 'Columbo'-esque qualities, with the murderer playing cat-and-mouse with detectives until finally being caught. No such luck, as the slayer is unceremoniously disposed of after the first act, leaving only a laconic character study behind.
Director Patrick Dooley seems totally flummoxed by the material and plays it so straight that the weaknesses in the text are pointed up even more. The production is further hampered by a flatlining performance by Silberg, who possesses so little charisma that it's impossible to comprehend how anybody could go to such drastic lengths to attain his affections.
On the flip side, the women in his orbit - particularly Ackerman, Donohue, and Trish Mulholland as a tea-addicted housekeeper - manage to inject more verve than their roles deserve, and Kevin Karrick's crusty Dr. Stoner is right on the money. If Dooley is guilty of anything, it's of not encouraging the rest of his cast to follow Karrick's lead and have more fun with their clichéd roles.
Bay Guardian, December 9, 1998
'Verdict': guilty pleasure It takes guts to wind up your season with a play that was originally a resounding flop, but Berkeley's Shotgun Players is never short on chutzpah. When Agatha Christie's Verdict premiered in London, in 1958, it was booed and closed within a month. But in keeping with recent revivals of such psychological thrillers as An Inspector Calls, Christie's interest here in social responsibility over mystery strikes a contemporary chord.
Professor Karl Hendryk (Richard Silberg) and his invalid wife, Anya (Erin Merritt), having fled repression in an oddly unidentified Central European country, are struggling to adjust to their new home in England. Anya is cared for by their fellow refugee Lisa (Beth Donohue), and the three scrape by on Karl's university salary. Into their world swoops the rich, glamorous Helen Rollander (Emily Ackerman), determined to work her way into the professor's life as his private student.
Verdict does boast a murder, but it's hardly a mystery, leaving no question as to perpetrator or motive. The play is much more concerned with establishing who was morally responsible for the death, entertaining various claims of high-minded principle. But Christie is clearly no Ibsen, and the play's slight (and sometimes surprisingly clumsy) obeisances to her usual melodramatic-thriller mechanisms only make you miss them more.
Patrick Dooley's direction keeps things hopping just this side of camp, however, and there are several fine performances. Kevin Karrick does the evening's finest work as Anya's sardonic, Wellesian physician. The production doesn't convince us that Verdict was a devalued gem, but it's a diverting, playful curiosity.
Weekly, December 9, 1998
The Verdict Is In Verdict
The first production of Agatha Christie's Verdict was a miserable failure, booed by the gallery on opening night because of a miscue -- so the story goes -- that caused the curtain to fall too soon. But the play really isn't so bad. And the fact that the Shotgun Players would polish up this near-forgotten relic instead of doing The Mousetrap or some stage adaptation of Murder on the Nile marks a return to form, since making risky material work is what they do best -- if you ignore their last show, Mascara.
Verdict plays out in the book-lined study of Professor Karl Hendryk, a political emigre (from Germany? Russia?) who declines a lavish offer of tuition from a rich young woman. Helen Rollander wants private lessons from Hendryk, but the professor believes she isn't serious; he would rather give his time to dedicated scholars. Helen's rich and indulgent father makes a personal call to the professor and offers him cutting-edge medicine for the professor's wife, Anya, to treat a sclerotic condition that keeps her in a wheelchair. Hendryk has no choice, one thing leads to another, and Helen gives Anya an overdose of some heart drug. Verdict is not a whodunit -- we see the murder happen -- because Christie was trying to be literary, and the final mystery of the play is a dark one of character rather than plot.
The script is not a total success. It has wit, dash, humor; but it also has a ridiculous confession of love that feels so unmotivated it should be played for laughs. And the side of Hendryk's character Christie wants to condemn -- a devotion to principles, not people -- is unconvincing. There's something brittle and guarded about the morality here, and Verdict offers a taste of what Christie's critics meant when they charged her with failing to understand totalitarianism.
But as a story, the play is a lot of fun. Trish Mulholland plays a brilliant charwoman, Mrs. Roper, full of cockney inflection and bug-eyed faces; Kevin Karrick plays a nicely understated Dr. Stoner, who at least as much as the beautiful set gives the show a stolid British air; Emily Ackerman has good rich-girl flourishes as Helen Rollander; and Brian Linden, as her daddy, has a wonderfully sinister manner in his homburg, ashplant, and coat. Richard Silberg needs improving -- Hendryk's accent is forced -- but otherwise the cast seems to enjoy doing the show immensely, and no one in Berkeley on opening night, at least, tried to boo them off the stage.