NEW LEBANON, N.Y. — Dame Agatha Christie was not always the keenest stage adapter of her books and short stories. Even at their best, her plays can settle into a kind of wearing stasis; case in point: "Witness for the Prosecution," a straightforward, talky courtroom drama that is being given an, at best, fitful, effortful production at The Theater Barn.
Christie spins a ripping good yarn, it turns out; propelled by carefully plotted, cleverly applied turns. But the bludgeon director Phil Rice and his cast apply to Christie's writing wipes out the delicate nuance and finesse that are part and parcel of Christie's method and style.
Set in the office of barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts (a perilously unsteady, at best, John Noble) and a trial room in the Queen's Court, "Witness for the Prosecution" focuses on the trial of a charming-to-the-ladies ne'er-do-well named Leonard Vole (Nate Healey) who has been charged in the bloody murder of an older woman of means with whom he has been spending time, while his German wife, Romaine (Jean Garner), waits patiently at home and provides a seemingly unshakable alibi for her husband. Beyond that alibi, the mostly circumstantial evidence against Vole appears overwhelming; a slam dunk for the prosecution; a steep uphill challenge for the defense.
But if Christie has taught us anything in her narratives it is that you should never trust what you see. That caveat accounts for some dandy twists and an ending that should pack more of a dramatic punch than it does on the Theater Barn stage.
Rice's heavy handed production really is at its most authentic when it is at its least — Brandon Lee as Vole's solicitor, Mayhew; Steve King as the prosecutor, Mr. Myers; and, in the role of the judge, Sky Vogel, whose sublime, slyly applied skills are not put to their best use here.
The remaining performances have a lot more to do with striking attitudes and affecting accents than character development and dimension. Garner comes close to finding the heart of a woman who has been far too trusting and far too unlucky in love and life. Too often, however, her performance is defined by a heavyhanded Teutonic accent that channels Cloris Leachman's Frau Blucher in "Young Frankenstein." As Robart's secretary, Greta, Cara Moretto, who sports a terribly unconvincing blonde wig, indulges in the same kind of excessively broad, farcical caricature that marked her performance in the Barn's season-opening "Baskerville."
Healey is relatively credible as an opportunistic ladies man who may well be protesting his innocence a bit too much though he lacks the roguish charm that makes him so appealing to women.
As his lawyer, Noble stumbles, gropes for lines in the early going. But, like most of the performances in this production, even at his steadiest, Noble offers little more than line recitation.
For all their determined effort, when all is said and done the storytellers in this "Witness for the Prosecution" are nowhere near as compelling as the story they are telling.