Agatha Christie’s 1944 murder mystery “Towards Zero,” adapted for the stage by Gerald Verner in 1956, begins with an offstage tennis match on the grounds of a family estate.
That’s the only actual tennis scene, but in Long Beach Playhouse’s (LBP) lively staging, tennis-like rallying between love and jealousy continues for the rest of the play, with someone getting brutally bludgeoned (though not with a racquet).
Director Holland Renton and Assistant Director Meredith Miranda—who’ve both acted in previous LBP productions, Miranda most recently in “The Revolutionists”—tease out this unusual play’s latent humor, keep pacing tight and bring out the best from the talented cast.
Lady Tressilian (a regal Carmen Tunis, last seen at LBP in “The Cripple of Inishmaan”) is hosting family friends at her estate in Cornwall, including retired lawyer Mr. Treves (an excellent Spencer Douglas); bachelor Thomas Royde (Mark Carlin), recently returned from Malaysia; former ward Nevile Strange (Alex Piper) and his wife Kay (Jordan Brayboy)—plus his ex-wife Audrey (Milena Gotch).
Piper is exceptional as Nevile, a well-to-do dandy caught between the two women, an old rivalry with Royde and increasingly shaky standing with Lady Tressilian. Nevile glides through these interpersonal challenges in a believable way thanks to Piper’s natural yet astute portrayal.
Who actually invited his ex-wife Audrey, and why, is heavily debated among the characters. Her presence doesn’t sit well with Kay, who opens the play by coming into the house upset and fumbling for a cigarette after tennis with Nevile, who has been looking everywhere for Audrey. Brayboy is well cast as the feline Kay—cool as a cucumber knowing she’s not liked by Lady Tressilian while harboring anxiety, anger and suspicion about Audrey.
Kay also maintains a friendship with Ted Latimer (played with just enough smarm by Charlie Rodriguez), a gigolo-like figure who haunts a resort hotel across the bay from the estate. Also in the picture is Mary (Samantha Haase), Lady Tressilian’s put-upon caretaker, who happens to take sleeping pills one fateful night.
Amid Christie’s tangled web of love, jealousy, rivalry and hate, someone is inevitably murdered and in a gruesome way. Enter Superintendent Battle (LBP veteran Lee Samuel Tanng) and his younger nephew, Inspector Leach (Ben Pettis, whose tall presence and youth are put to humorous use more than once), to figure out who did it and why.
And that proves more complicated than one would think, providing the audience much opportunity to murmur guesses and conjectures as the plot snowballs “towards zero”—the moment of truth—and then some.
Music from the 1950s and early 1960s pervades the production, the songs’ upbeat tones dampened by suspicions and doubts within the house—one song in particular echoing a theme of poisonous love (sound design by Allison Mamann).
Costumes by Christina Bayer are also fitting for the period and suit each character, including Audrey’s elegant dresses and heels (though her tanned blondeness make her seem more Californian than British), Kay’s cute tennis skirt and Ted Latimer’s slightly oversized nightclub jacket.
An unfussy set (by Greg Fritsche) is well suited for action—including a “window” overlooking the bay at one end of the thrust stage that characters open or sit near, forcing the audience to turn their heads back and forth along the stage as at a tennis match.
Such kinetic and aural inventiveness, along with physically and emotionally invested acting, make “Towards Zero” a fun whodunit romp with frequent unexpected turns. You'll enjoy keeping track of clues and motives as the mystery deepens from a score of “love-love” to a shocking “game, set and match” cathartic conclusion.
“Towards Zero” continues at the Long Beach Playhouse Mainstage Theatre, 5021 E. Anaheim St., through Feb. 11, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets range from $20 to $30. For tickets and information, call the box office at (562) 494-1014 or visit LBPlayhouse.org. Run time is 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission. Masks required.