Slow Excursion Down the 'Nile'

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Just to be clear, Agatha Christie's "Murder on the Nile" is and is not the stage version of her 1937 novel "Death on the Nile," which was the basis for the movie in 1979.

Just to be clear, the basic murder plot and double-crosses and twists are more or less preserved by Christie from her novel (which she considered her best work set in a locale other than England), and the novel's all-European passengers are almost all here.

But of the two treatments, one has legendary sleuth Hercule Poirot and the other one doesn't. One has us scampering all over the Egyptian desert; the other never takes us off the luxury ship Lotus. One has a real murder mystery aura; the other has case of plodding dramatic feet.

Unfortunately, at the New Community Center Theatre, we must do with the Poirot-free, ship-bound, plodding one. And, under Ryan Kray's direction, we do mean plodding.

Central to the story are: the recently married couple, Simon and Kay Mostyn (Mark Gavranovic and Cathie Kennedy); Simon's jealous and jilted lover, Jacqueline (Kelly Herman); an acerbic, slightly suspicious young British twit named Mr. Smith (John Beane), and Kay's contentious maid Louise (Cecily Davis).

No less crucial (this being the usual Christie ensemble where everyone has the motive and opportunity to be a suspect) are seemingly pleasant Christina (Diane Bass); haughty Miss Ffoliot-Ffoulkes (Char Salkin), who bosses Christina around; Dr. Bessner (Ray Fulmer), who wields a mighty big syringe; the ship steward (Alfredo Vasquez), and the ship's frantic captain (Tom Atkins).

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Christie's oddest creation has to be a jolly old pastor, Canon Pennefather (Bob Kokol), who mixes his nuggets of morality with some unaccountably well-honed detective skills. You'd almost think he was Poirot in religious drag.

Well, you'd be right.

He is Christie's curious stage substitute for her novel's sleuth, but as both a messenger of Christian goodness and as a crime-solver, he never really convinces. The one advantage for the Pennefather character, which Kokol smartly plays up, is that at first one is not sure what his motives are. Under the cloth, he could be sinister; that's never the case with Poirot.

In any case, even if you haven't read the book or seen the movie, Christie's twists and climax are sadly easy to predict, and there is little beyond some lightly comic British-style backbiting to substitute for the lack of brain-teasing.

Which may be why most of the cast sounds like it's going through the paces. Kokol, however, blends an all-business demeanor with a Santa Claus-like friendliness that lifts him above a stock genre type. And Beane has the best time here, dancing back and forth between potential suspect, ship fool and love interest. Bass' Christina suggests a real woman beneath the servility, and Herman shrewdly underplays the "woman scorned" routine.

But Kennedy's Kay and Gavranovic's Simon come off as playing dress-up; they are more in control of their couture than of their dialects. Fulmer has his own dialect problems and fumbles his duties as comic relief. Davis gives her maid an edge, but--again--you're never quite sure what country she's from. Salkin huffs and puffs amusingly as an old snob. Some of the walk-on parts, though, you wish would walk right off.

On the theater's impossibly deep, wide and low-ceilinged stage (actually a large platform intended for conferences and church services), Kray's actors sometimes seem a thousand miles away. Lee Jones' set of chiffon curtains and upper-class casual beiges cuts down on the cold distance. Even prettier are Alexa Hodgson's costumes--the guys in studly black, the women in high heels and pearls.

Along with its unwieldy stage, New Community may be the only theater anywhere with a so-called "dessert theater format": One watches the show from seats grouped around tables on an unraked floor, and eats dessert at the tables during intermission. The uncomfortable seating is mandatory, the dessert is optional, but none of it feels anything like a theater.

* "Murder on the Nile," New Community Center Theatre, 2025 Alton Parkway, Irvine. Fridays-Saturdays, 8:30 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Sunday. $13-$15. (714) 442-9252. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Bob Kokol Canon: Pennefather

John Beane: Smith

Kelly Herman: Jacqueline

Mark Gavranovic: Simon

Cathie Kennedy: Kay

Diane Bass: Christina

Cecily Davis: Louise

Ray Fulmer: Dr. Bessner

Char Salkin: Miss Ffoliot-Ffoulkes

A New Community Center Theatre production of a murder mystery by Agatha Christie, directed by Ryan Kray. Set: Lee Jones. Lights: Alison Brummer. Costumes: Alexa Hodgson. Sound: Judy Bass.

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