An empty mansion on an unoccupied island. A storm at sea. A collection of strangers brought together after receiving enticing letters of invitation.
And a homicidal maniac picking them off one by one.
For a well-brought-up English lady, Agatha Christie had some pretty dark ideas, gnarly notions which she let run wild in “And Then There Were None.”
Christie’s brain-teaser of a play -- now on the boards in a Kansas City Actors Theatre production at Union Station -- starts out rather creakily. It’s almost like a cliched parody of a Brit manor house murder mystery, with various “types” meeting and greeting over drinks.
But midway through the first of three acts a disembodied voice calls out to each guest one by one, accusing them all of various murders.
Then the dying starts.
Given that Christie’s plays are more about the gimmick than the characters, audiences can take satisfaction in the terrific cast assembled by director John Rensenhouse. They suggest depth that probably isn’t on the printed page, and find amusing moments of humor that less creative players might overlook.
Vera (Ellen Kirk) is the private secretary of Mrs. Owens, a rich Londoner who has organized this confab. But Mrs. Owens is a no-show...and in fact Vera admits she has only just been hired via correspondence and has never met her employer.
Vera has a flirt-buddy in Lombard (Matt Schwader), a former military officer who specializes in good-natured seduction and making nihilistic jokes at precisely the wrong time. He’s been blamed for abandoning his men in combat.
Sir Lawrence (Victor Raider-Wexler) is a judge who may have sent an innocent man to the gallows. General Mackenzie (Robert Gibby Brand) is a doddering old fellow still mourning the loss of his wife...and feeling a bit guilty about sending her lover on a suicide mission.
Miss Brent (Manon Halliburton) is a moralistic Bible thumper...with a secret of her own.
Dr. Armstrong (Peter Zazzali) is a neurologist who, ironically, has a bad case of nerves. Might have something to do with the operation he botched by going into surgery soused.
Callow young Marston (Kyle Dick) is a selfish bounder with a bit of vehicular homicide in his past. Blore (Matt Rapport) is a voracious police detective lured to the island as part of a criminal case, only to find himself a potential murder victim.
And then there’s the husband-and-wife butler-and-cook team (Greg Butell, Bonnie Griffin), recently hired by unseen employers and possibly complicit in the premature death of an invalid they once cared for.
Inside this paranoid pressure cooker the participants quickly conclude that one of them is the culprit, employing poison, gunshots, booby traps, hatchets, drowning and other nasty business to cull the herd. But which one?
Each death represents a stanza from an 1869 children’s poem -- “Ten Little Soldier Boys” -- engraved on a plaque above the fireplace. And on the mantle there are 10 soldier statuettes which mysteriously vanish, one by one, as their human counterparts turn up dead.
(One of the great pleasures of this production is trying to catch the statuettes being removed. It’s pretty much impossible, since the staging so effectively diverts our attention away to other goings-on.)
All of this unfolds on Mark Exline’s spectacular set, a swank Art Deco living room with a huge set of panoramic windows through which we can see the sky and animated waves.
Who, if anyone, will survive? How can the mysterious killer know so much about the guests and their assorted dark pasts? And what are his/her motives?
All those questions will be answered...but not before the stage fills with fresh corpses.
“And Then There Were None” continues through Aug. 27 at the City Stage in Union Station. Call 816-235-6222 or see kcactors.org.