Jason Simms’ admirably stately set with its handsomely stained paneled walls and accoutrements announcing the well-heeled, august, and learned makes a striking impression before Susan D. Atkinson’s excellent production of Agatha Christie’s “Witness for the Prosecution” for Bristol Riverside Theater engrosses you.
The chambers of a famous London barrister smack of such authenticity, you think you’re Thames-side in Lincoln Inn Fields instead of in a theater on the banks of the Delaware. Simms reveals more wonders as the law offices of Sir Wilford Robarts, Q.C. (Keith Baker), are transformed into an equally believable courtroom in Old Bailey.
Good thing Simms’ set gets to elicit its oohs and ahs ahead of the play because once Baker, Eleanor Handley, Carl Wallnau, Matt Leisy, and Leonard C. Haas begin the legal hashings that draw you so thoroughly into Christie’s sturdy 1953 chestnut, architecture becomes a trifle, and stagecraft — from writer, director, and a flawless cast — takes over and holds you for the remainder of the pitch-perfect performance.
Perhaps one telling accolade for Atkinson’s production is it takes two hours and 45 minutes to unfold yet breezes by jauntily as you latch on to every clue, telltale character trait, and bit of lawyer’s one-upmanship the characters played by Baker and Haas so wittily and deliciously employ, Baker’s mounting the defense to Haas’s seemingly airtight yet circumstantial prosecution. Christie understood British humor and intellectual competitiveness well enough to give both attorneys chances to verbally skewer the other while leaving room for the judge (Paul B. Weagraff) to get in some ripostes and rejoinders of his own.
The humor in Christie’s script and Atkinson’s production is not the rollicking kind nor the farcical slapstick Christie and other writers of suspense have to deal with these days, as directors attempt to strike the same theatrical lightning Maria Aitken did in the original production of “The 39 Steps.”
The beauty of Atkinson’s staging is it hews tight to the dramatic mark and aims for reality and involvement rather than facile gimmickry and unconnected amusement. Atkinson and cast trust their material and do it with a fidelity that seems almost forgotten in the current penchant to treat all familiar stories and genres as a joke.
“Witness for the Prosecution” would not lend itself to such frivolity. Christie deftly weaves in some humor, but she is unveiling what’s known or suspected about a gruesome murder and sticks mainly to details of the crime that make you think, wonder, doubt, and decide as various facts and ideas are revealed. This is an honest, earnest mystery with enough twists and surprises to keep you riveted to the Bristol stage and its sterling actors.
Genuine curiosity and suspense are the mesmerizers here, and Atkinson and company give them the respect they deserve while keeping courtroom arguments lively, casual badinage between colleagues interesting, and the critical scenes that make or break Robarts’ case absorbingly gripping. The production invites your undivided concentration. You don’t want to miss anything that could point to the truth in this strategic seesaw of a murder trial.
You also wouldn’t want to miss this level of acting. Keith Baker consistently shows the advantage of his years on stage by finely measured performances that combine strict adherence to character with a sure knack for entertaining. Baker knows how to let lines breathe.
As Robarts, he at once conveys the assurance and wisdom of the veteran professional while showing alacrity and excitement when a challenging or juicy case comes along. This Robarts is serious in his regard for the law while enticed by a good legal skirmish with a regular arch-rival, the prosecutor played by Haas. In short, Baker’s performance galvanizes Atkinson’s production and gives it a core that paces and drives all else that happens.
While Baker galvanizes, Eleanor Handley fascinates. She plays the now-devoted, now-disloyal wife of the defendant (Leisy) with exquisite control that keeps her character as much a mystery as the murder case that is being tried. Handley is masterful in her portrayal of a woman who is an actress, unemployed but an actress, who saves her best performances for Robarts and keeps him guessing at every turn, even when he thinks she is playing fair and square.
Her ability to play aloofness and come across as a woman who is too blunt and uncaring to dissemble is uncanny and helps to give Bristol’s “Witness for the Prosecution” some edge. The only thing I would change about Handley’s performance is her wigs, which seem a little too unkempt to be worn by a woman who comes off as so precise.
Leonard C. Haas exudes power and authority as Her Majesty’s prosecutor. Haas seems as ready to duel legally as Baker does. There’s fire and a strong will to prevail in the prosecutor’s demeanor. Haas also makes the most of his character’s snideness towards Robarts.
Matt Leisy is a perfect choice for the accused murderer, Leonard Vole. He is disarmingly ingenuous. You want to believe him so fervently that you take his side almost on first sight. Leisy never seems like a man who has been in jail for months and is on trial for his life. There’s always a boyish optimism in his manner that makes you think of Leonard as naive and harmless, useful traits for one who might be a killer, and a cowardly one.
Carl Wallnau frames scenes while being a sounding board and companion to Robarts. It is the opening scene between Baker and Wallnau that gives this “Witness” its tone, the reliable Wallnau establishing a rapport with Baker’s Robarts immediately.
Sharon Alexander is feistily tough and fittingly proper as one expected to be the main witness for the prosecution. Christopher J. Perugini takes the small part of the court clerk and magnifies it to importance with his authoritatively stentorian pronouncements and commanding presence.
Simms’ set is a stunner, of Broadway quality, while Gina Andreoli’s costumes are so right, they don’t seem like costumes, and Joe Doran’s lighting adds to the courtroom atmosphere.
Witness for the Prosecution, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, PA. Through Sunday, May 28. $33 to $50. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.