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BWW Review: Well Acted and Directed WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION at Grouprep

Witness for the Prosecution/by Agatha Christie/based on her 1925 story/directed by Jules Aaron/Group rep at the Lonny Chapman Theatre, NoHo/through March 12

There's nothing like a good old fashioned mystery to keep you on the edge of your theatre seat, especially one that's written by the grande dame of the genre Agatha Christie. The Mousetrap was one of the longest running plays on the West End for umpteen years. As I sat at Group rep Friday night watching Witness for the Prosecution, which is rarely revived, I really tuned in to the dialogue. It is so well constructed, and the dozen or so characters are deliciously humorous. I am happy to report that the new production at Group rep directed by skilled veteran Jules Aaron and starring guest artist Salome Jens and Larry Eisenberg is akin to a jolly good rollercoaster ride. It's delightfully entertaining and can be seen through March 12.

I cannot reveal the ending even though many, like myself, have been fans of the 1957 film starring Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton. At the top we are warned: Do not give away the end of the play! I also do not intend to rehash a lot of the plot, just the basics.

London; 20th century. Due to strong circumstantial evidence, businessman Leonard Vole (Patrick Skelton) is accused of and put on trial for the murder of wealthy widow Mrs. Emily French with whom he has formed a comfortable attachment. Unbeknownst to him, or so he claims, French made him heir to her estate, changing her will in his favor only days before her murder. Vole is married to Romaine (Salome Jens), a German woman, already married to a German, whom he pretended to marry to save her from the Russian invasion of Germany. The hugely famous Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Larry Eisenberg) defends Vole, believing him to be innocent. Romaine, rather than testify for the defense, does so for the prosecution, lying by changing her story 360 degrees and fabricating an elaborate plot in the hopes of... acquitting him. It may sound a tad complicated, but it's all in good fun, as Robarts battles Romaine, Romaine battles Vole, and others step in at the Old Bailey to lend suspicion to Vole's intentions.

The acting, under director Aaron's taut pacing, is superb from top to bottoM. Eisenberg is superior, never missing a beat, in one of his best performances to date. The production's success really belongs to him. Jens, although too old for Romaine, does a sturdy job of making her character cold, calculating and challenging in a well-honed performance...with a few fun surprises thrown in as only Christie could have imagined. Jens is a masterful actress. Skelton as Vole impressed me so much in his strong attempts to convince the jury that he is innocent. His tense and uncomfortable demeanor, expressed via agitated facial expressions in the courtroom work to perfection. In strong supporting roles, standouts are Roslyn Cohn as Robarts' fumbling, almost silly secretary Greta, Todd Andrew Ball, prim and proper as Carter and then deliriously funny as Dr. Wyatt, Michele Schultz wonderfully competent as Mrs. Mayhew, Lloyd Pedersen stern yet droll as Mr. Justice Wainwright, and Chris Winfield relentless as Mr. Myers, lawyer for the prosecution. A special shout out to Sherry Michaels as Janet MacKenzie, Mrs. French's maid, who gives us a fabulous portrayal of a dutiful yet intensely jealous servant. J Kent Inasy's set design is one of Group rep's best, representing Robarts' office as well as the Old Bailey.

There's something very intriguing about Witness's portrayal of women and men's reactions to them. Were they taken seriously? Did their opinions and feelings count? Robarts doubts Romaine from the beginning. Eventually she is accused of perjury. Mackenzie is seen as an envious employee who would lie wholeheartedly in order to defend her right to the inheritance. Interesting that a woman, Agatha Christie, back then, painted her female characters as deceitful and untrustworthy through men's eyes, yet showed that they were intelligent, smart and willing to stand up and fight for their beliefs in a man's world, regardless of the price. Early feminism, you say? Watch out for the ending! Pay close attention, for it does convey that extra special touch.

Go see Witness for the Prosecution at Group rep through March 12! It will entertain and surprise you. Congratulations! Great work from one and all!

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From This Author Don Grigware