“Murder on the Links” is a 1923 Agatha Christie mystery featuring that most particular of detectives, Hercule Poirot. Brilliantly adapted for the stage by writer and director Steven Dietz, and having its world premiere at the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach through May 21, the play makes murder dazzlingly delightful thanks to an excellent cast and creative staging.
Belgian detective Poirot (Omri Schein) has been summoned to a seaside town in France to assist in solving the murder of a wealthy man stabbed in the back with an unusually crafted knife. Schein personifies Poirot’s dapper and mustachioed eccentricity, walking head-forward and frequently gazing at the audience with an astute twinkle as he makes his inspired—sometimes magical-seeming—deductions.
Poirot’s forthrightness sometimes prompts Captain Arthur Hastings (Kim Morgan Dean)—Poirot’s British partner in crime-solving—to gasp “Wow, what a question!” to the audience, amusingly capturing what we feel as well. The female Dean is stellar as a boyish Hastings, dressed in tweed and embodying her character with expressive clarity.
Four consummate actors gamely play the remaining dozens of characters—switching among French, German and British accents and changing in and out of costume both onstage and off— a big part of the enjoyment of this production.
Among other roles, the poised Jessica Mosher plays an acrobatic performer—whom Hastings becomes quite taken with after meeting her on a train—and a French maid in the house of the murdered man who constantly weeps at the horrible plight of her dead master and his infirm wife.
Jennifer Erdmann plays that wife and all her other roles with a straight face that somehow evokes mirth, reminiscent of Carol Burnett. Matthew Salazar-Thompson is warmly expressive as all his characters, including a caped French policeman. And Brian Mackey seems to enjoy switching between the murdered man’s son and the trenchcoated, beret-wearing French inspector in charge of the case, whom Poirot compares to a hunting dog.
The play has fun speeding up the character-switching in the second act, at one point asking Mackey to defy the laws of physics in playing both the son and the inspector at the same time. The second act also features a meta-theatrical scene in which Poirot recaps events surrounding the murder as they “really” happened while the cast illustrates using bowling pins dressed in little costumes.
While the play is often laugh-out-loud funny in these ways—to the point where one might sometimes forget it’s a convoluted murder-mystery—the seriousness with which each cast member performs their respective roles keeps it grounded. Their collective timing is impeccable, appearing and disappearing on cue and working around each other gracefully on the intimate stage.
Set design by Marty Burnett features a background array of window frames with cabinet drawers on either side through which stagehands deliver props like the murder weapon. Multi-hued, ombre lighting (by Matt Novotny, making full use of the theatre’s substantial bank of lanterns) adds visual interest and depth to the stage.
Unobtrusive music by Robertson Witmer further creates a mysterious mood and reflects the play’s 1920s timeframe. And exquisite period costumes by Elisa Benzoni include Hastings’s wide-legged tweed suit, Poirot’s pinstripes and equally tailored cuts for the women's outfits.
Directed by Dietz with dramatic and comedic flair, “Murder on the Links” is a gem of a production anchored by a talented cast, all members of the Actors’ Equity Association. North Coast Rep itself is a gem of a venue, professionally run and generously funded by those who love theatre. That love shines through in the “joie de vivre” Dietz says he wanted to tease out in Christie’s story, making this murderous escapade all the more delightful.
“Murder on the Links” continues at the North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Dr., Ste. D, Solana Beach, through May 21, with performances Wednesdays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $59 to $65. For tickets and information, call the box office at (858) 481-1055 or visit NorthCoastRep.org. Run time is 2 hours, with intermission. Masks optional.