That old rotter

If there's one thing audiences won't put up with these days, it's exposition. Like a horny teenager, they want to cut right to the chase.

The current obsession with getting to the bottom line makes Murder on the Nile a tough play to stage. Agatha Christie, the old sot, likes to take her time setting up the chess pieces of her meticulously plotted mysteries before getting down to the gambit of murder. She insists on characterization, motivation, and all that rot.

Kyle McClaren, who directs this version of one of Christie's more popular whodunits, grapples with the problem of audience attention deficit disorder, but doesn't quite pin it.

Not that he doesn't have some good excuses. First, as director of a community theater, McClaren is caught between the urge to spread his artistic wings and the necessity of pleasing his paying constituents--the blue-haired ladies of Richardson. These normally genial women can get quite testy when not fed the kind of theatrical dishes they like, which, to please them, must include generous portions of plot and large dollops of intelligible dialogue (which pretty much rules out any plays written after 1960). The Lion in Winter, Blithe Spirit, and, most appropriately from a demographic point of view, Arsenic and Old Lace, are the kind of respectable works the matronly theater patrons of Richardson prefer--and they have a point.

In addition to being hampered by audience expectations, McClaren does not have his pick of Dallas' top actors from whom to choose. Himself a former "Best Actor of the Year" (as selected by the departed Dallas Times Herald), McClaren must do his best to field an NFL-level team with Arena League talent.

Visually, he and stage manager Alan Corcoran succeed admirably. The set, a convincing reconstruction of a saloon observation deck on a paddlewheeler plying the waters of the Nile in the late 1930s, has the sumptuous, almost sinisterly voluptuous look associated with the corrupt East of Anglo-Saxon imagination. It's a particular surprise to stumble into this elegantly appointed stage after wandering in from the theater's parking lot, which, along with the theater, services a very unprepossessing row of offices tucked behind a Tom Thumb grocery store.

It's also a pleasant surprise when stage fog billows in at the start of the first act, and Belle Wang, playing the inscrutable proprietress of the floating hotel, does a sinuous dance to the strains of Asian mysterioso music. The fey mood continues when McClaren stages an introductory scene in simulated slow-motion, a gimmick borrowed from cinema that is repeated throughout the play.

After that, though, Murder on the Nile gets down to good old-fashioned exposition-- catnip to people who relish conventional mysteries, but slow going for those who don't. First we must meet the players and sift through the various clues suggesting why characters A, B, C, and D might wish to slip a bradawl into the ribs of character E.

The parson, for example. Could he want the heiress' money to fund this wacky New-Jerusalem-in-Britain project? And what of the young firebrand socialist who wants to see the blood of the rich running in the streets?

Or could the killer be the French maid with her slutty expression and her tendency to laugh in a markedly sinister manner?

While you're poring over these clues, the actors are doing their best to convince you that they really are the stock characters (haughty dowager, jilted lover, young scoffer) they are portraying on stage. Some succeed better than others, particularly those who choose not to affect an accent, or who begin the play with one but soon think better of it and revert to their native Americanese.

Doug Luke as Herr Dr. Bessner opts for an array of brogues, providing a kind of aural tour of Europe before settling on a German accent that sounds something like Peter Sellers' tortured Teutonic rasp in Dr. Strangelove. Debra Pyeatt, as Louise the maid, has a similarly difficult time with her French accent, which becomes a particular liability when she enters the saloon and announces, in a Dr. Seuss-like rhyme, that, "Madam is dead. Dead in ze bed."

Sara Lovett fares better as the doomed heiress, as does Donna Fotschky as a snobby old xenophobic Englishwoman. Karen Baker also is credible as a crazed, jilted jane who's trapped in the toils of a fatal attraction.

The most interesting performance, however, is turned in by Jim Sullivan as the heiress' spaniel of a husband. Sullivan bears a passing resemblance to Steve Martin that seems to grow stronger as the play continues. There are hints in his performance of Cary Grant, or rather, of Tony Curtis parodying Cary Grant, as he did so well in Some Like It Hot. Though he really sells himself out in the role--fawning, weeping, grimacing, or walking catatonically as the occasion demands--Sullivan's face has a lurking comic potential that suggests he's walking the tightrope between straight drama and farce. It's the kind of performance that keeps you interested in an otherwise formulaic play.

It takes well into the second act before all the conflicts come to a boil. Eventually, however, bodies begin to drop and characters stalk across the stage intoning meaty lines like "It's madness, I tell you, madness!" By this time, however, the old duffer behind me was yawning and groaning elaborately, making it clear to his wife that it would be a long time before she dragged him to another play.

Then, at the end, something rather unexpected and exciting happens. The actors appear on stage and do a weird and funny voguing routine, shrouded in the ubiquitous stage mist. To the beat of anachronistic '90s dance music, they preen and strike silly glamour poses, and suddenly there's some wit and life in this stodgy old Christie war-horse. The dance number shows again the great grist for farce that lies beneath this and most other conventional genre pieces.

If only the production had got to the comedic bottom line faster. As K.C. and the Sunshine Band put it, unwittingly speaking for the modern theater audience, "That's the way, uh-huh, uh-huh, we like it."

Murder on the Nile runs through October 7 at the Richardson Theatre Centre. 699-1130.

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P.b. Miller