Review: ‘Towards Zero’ at the Colonial Players of Annapolis

Colonial Players’ production of Towards Zero is an intriguing murder mystery, by one of the genre’s icons. Written by Agatha Christie and Gerald Verner in 1956, the play is based on Christie’s 1944 novel of the same name. Directed by Mark T. Allen, it tackles the play’s challenges of misdirection and red herrings planted throughout the story. It is somewhat marred, however, by the melodramatic ending, which seems so much in contrast to the sedateness of the rest of the plot and causes an unintended reaction in the audience that would appall Christie fans.

The cast of the Colonial Players of Annapolis production of 'Towards Zero.' L to R back: Lauren Brown, Ben Bell, Robin Schwartz, Jeffrey Miller, Nicole Musho. L to R front: Michael Dunlop, Joanna Tobin. Photo by Colburn Images.
The cast of the Colonial Players of Annapolis production of ‘Towards Zero.’ L to R back: Lauren Brown, Ben Bell, Robin Schwartz, Jeffrey Miller, Nicole Musho. L to R front: Michael Dunlop, Joanna Tobin. Photo by Colburn Images.

Lauren Brown gives a youthful temper to Kay, second wife to Nevile Strange (Ben Bell), staying against her wishes at Nevile’s guardian’s Cornwall estate. Her unease at being there is partly because Nevile’s first wife Audrey (Nicole Musho) is also staying there, at Nevile’s request. Brown perfectly captures someone struggling with feeling unwelcome. Convinced that Audrey is scheming against her, and frustrated by no one believing her, she grows increasingly angry and desperate, more so when the murder occurs. Being questioned by the authorities, she answers quickly and angrily, eager to escape this place.

Ben Bell gives an air of naivete to Nevile, thinking, against everyone’s advice, it would “be good if Audrey and Kay were friends.” Unthinkingly passing a paper to Audrey, he enrages Kay. Normally quiet, when secrets come out about his relationship with Audrey, he starts shouting and moving about, determined to defend her no matter what. He plays the typical well-mannered, well-off English gentleman at first, slowly revealing more of himself.

Nicole Musho plays Audrey as quiet and meek. Visibly uncomfortable at being in the same house as Kay, she walks around with the sense of something horrible about to happen. In a crucial scene, Nevile carries her into the room, shaking and crying. Under questioning, she struggles to keep her emotions bottled up, refusing to look at the murder weapon. At the end, she gives an emotionally wrenching performance.

Joanna Tobin gives authority to Lady Tressilian, the owner of the estate. She makes her contempt at Kay clear with the tone of her voice and a withering look. Displeased at Nevile, she speaks to him, as he puts it, “as though I were still 6 years old.”

Robin Schwartz plays Mary, Lady Tressilian’s assistant, with good humor and hidden depths. She self-deprecatingly calls herself a “dogsbody,” after explaining what it means. She provides valuable information after the murder, stumbling in and trembling as she speaks. Later, she reveals her own dreams and fears, a desire to be on her own.

Aaron Vonderhaar plays Thomas, Audrey’s cousin, with a quietness that hides his strength, which briefly emerges when confronting Nevile.

Martin Thompson plays Kay’s friend Ted with deep bitterness. He throws out witty little barbs, a cynical edge to his voice. He makes no secret of his dislike for Nevile for having won Kay.

L to R: Lauren Brown (Kay), Ben Bell (Nevile), and Nicole Musho (Audrey) in 'Towards Zero' by Colonial Players of Annapolis. Photo by Colburn Images.
L to R: Lauren Brown (Kay), Ben Bell (Nevile), and Nicole Musho (Audrey) in ‘Towards Zero’ by Colonial Players of Annapolis. Photo by Colburn Images.

Michael N. Dunlop gives curiosity to Mathew, Lady Tressilian’s friend. Playing peacemaker, he tries to assure Kay about Audrey’s intentions, and to patch things up between Kay and Nevile after their row. He asks many questions during the murder investigation, feeling that “something’s not quite right” with it. He commands the stage in the last scene, standing in front of everyone and explaining his theories.

Jeffrey Miller plays Superintendent Battle with authority and discretion. He firmly but politely questions Kay and Audrey, slowly discovering what they know. He is slightly more probing with Nevile. Bob “Gunslinger” Singer gives Inspector Leach a commanding, inquisitive tone, while Jim Berard is the strong, silent type as Constable Benson.

Floor Designer Amy Atha-Nicholls and Properties Designer Constance Robinson have created a set that feels like a classic English drawing room. A carpet covers the whole stage, with two round chairs and a sofa in the middle. A drinks cart is on the far right, while to the left is a small night-table with books. A window is offstage to the right, where plants and clouds can be seen.

Costume Co-Designers Amy Atha-Nicholls and Jean Berard have made outfits that feel appropriate to the period. Thomas wears khaki pants, a blue jacket, and red tie. Kay begins in a short yellow summer dress, later changing to a pink evening gown, and finishing in a long green and white floral dress. Lady Tressilian is in a black dress and top. Mary wears a green dress at the start, later wearing a white nightgown and a blue dress with sheer arms. Benson is in a dark blue jacket and pants, carrying a bobby’s helmet.

Lighting Designer Ernie Morton uses lighting for great effect. The lights flash during a thunderstorm, and fade for scene and act changes. Miniature working chandeliers hang from the ceiling. Sound Designer David Cooper throws out sounds of thunder, seagulls cawing, and mysterious music. The offstage voices and sounds come through clearly.

Dialect Coach BettyAnn Leeseberg-Lange ensures the actors speak with the right British accents for their characters’ different classes, while still being comprehensible. Michael N. Dunlop’s accent strangely sounds more American.

Mark T. Allen does a great job as Director. The actors navigate the stage and each other easily, delivering the exposition and revealing the clues naturally. Some audience members not used to Christie’s stories may find Act 1, establishing the various relationships, a bit slow. The audience’s unintended reaction at the end came from the melodramatic violence, which seems jarring from the rest of the play. The actors handled this admirably, and hopefully as the show’s run continues the ending will seem less awkward. Colonial Players should be commended for putting on such a challenging genre play to end their 70th season.

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes, with a 20-minute intermission.

Towards Zero plays through June 22, 2019, at the Colonial Players of Annapolis – 108 East Street, Annapolis, MD. Purchase tickets at the door, call the box office at 410-268-7373, or go online.