A couple of miscast lead roles undermine credibility throughout what would otherwise be a satisfactory production of Agatha Christie’s Witness For The Prosecution at The Group Rep.

 Christie’s 1953 mystery, while overlong for contemporary tastes, particularly with both intermissions intact, remains one of her best known puzzles thanks in large measure to its Billy Wilder-directed 1957 film adaptation, one that continues to shock audiences worldwide with one of Christie’s most brilliantly imagined twist endings.

The Queen Of Mystery’s courtroom drama centers on Londoner Leonard Vole, accused of murdering Miss Emily French, the well-to-do, decades-older cat lady with whom he had recently become suspiciously close, a chief suspect whose acquittal depends on his East German wife Romaine’s testimony that he was at home with her at the time of the murder.

 Unfortunately for Leonard’s lawyer, barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts, not only does Romaine’s sworn statement seem unconvincing, even if it did sound more heartfelt, what jury wouldn’t question whether or not a grateful spouse is lying to save the life of the man who rescued her from Communist East Berlin?

Still, Sir Wilfrid is never one to back away from a lost cause, and so he agrees to take on Leonard’s case.

Witness after witness seem bent on painting the accused as a cold-blooded killer, most particularly Miss French’s longtime housekeeper Janet Mackenzie, who claims to have heard Leonard and her mistress conversing shortly before the latter met her maker, the victim of a blunt object to the head.

Worse still, Miss French’s recently rewritten will leaves her entire estate to Leonard.

 It’s therefore up to Sir Wilfrid to convince a jury to trust a suspiciously unaffectionate wife over a witness willing to swear on a stack of Bibles that the voices she overheard were those of Miss French and Leonard, so help her God.

All of this might work quite well on The Group Rep stage had the parts of Leonard and Romaine been cast as Christie dictated, the former as “a likable, friendly young man, about twenty-seven” and Romaine as a woman presumably not much older than he.

At The Group Rep, however, Leonard (Patrick Skelton) looks to be in his fifties, and Salome Jens, presumably cast for name value, is eighty-one. (Hearing Romaine refer to Leonard’s 60something patroness as “the old woman” rings ludicrously false.) Both Skelton and Jens are talented actors, but it’s hard to evaluate their work here given how wrong they are for the roles they are playing.

(Complicating matters is a bit of written-in trick casting that is supposed to fool an audience but doesn’t here for reasons that will become clear to anyone seeing the production.)

Under Jules Aaron’s direction, The Group Rep co-artistic directors Larry Eisenberg (Sir Wilfrid) and Chris Winfield (prosecutor Mr. Myers) provide dramatic fireworks, and giving solicitor Mr. Mayhew a sex change proves fortuitous for a suitably starchy Michele Schultz.

 Sherry Michaels is a nicely vindictive Janet, both Todd Andrew Ball (Carter, Dr. Wyatt) and Roslyn Cohn (Greta, Mrs. Clegg) make a pair of quite distinctive impressions, and Bruce Nehlsen (Inspector Hearne), Lloyd Pedersen (Mr. Justice Wainwright), and Nathalie Cardenas (The Girl) provide effective support.

Mikel Parraga-Wills (Court Clerk) looks just right to play Leonard as written, and Rishi Das and Nikola Georgiov are on stage during courtroom scenes as a Detective and an Officer. Juanita Young completes the cast as Cockney Woman.

 Scenic designer J. Kent Inasy’s set morphs ingeniously from barrister’s chambers to criminal court and back. Inasy’s lighting is first-rate as are Angela M. Eads’ early-1950s costumes and Judi Lewin’s makeup, hair, and wig design. Sound designer Steve Shaw adds musical underscoring and courtroom reactions at appropriate moments. Linda Brennan’s dialect coaching works better with some actors than with others.

Mannette Antill and Paul Cady are producers for The Group Rep. Jordan Hoxsie is production stage manager.

It’s been said that ninety percent of directing is casting the right actors. Miscasting doesn’t destroy Witness For The Prosecution, but it comes close.

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The Group Rep, Lonny Chapman Theatre, 10900 Burbank Boulevard, North Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
February 24, 2017
Photos: Troy Whitaker

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