Review: North Coast’s bubbly ‘Murder on the Links’ a fun and well-cast whodunit

Three actors in North Coast Repertory Theatre's "Murder on the Links."
Kim Morgan Dean, Omri Schein and Brian Mackey in North Coast Repertory Theatre’s “Murder on the Links.”
(Courtesy of Aaron Rumley)

The world premiere play by writer-director Steven Dietz was adapted from a murder mystery novel by Agatha Christie


British novelist Agatha Christie was known for crafting ingeniously plotted mysteries, well-rounded characters, crisp dialogue and gradually-escalating pacing. One thing her writing was not know for was humor.

But in the hands of playwright and stage director Steven Dietz, Christie’s 1923 novel “The Murder on the Links” has become a funny and free-wheeling comedy at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach.

The two-hour play, which opened Saturday in its world premiere, turns Christie’s serious novel into a raucous parody that pokes fun at theatrical conventions and transforms the famously fussy Belgian detective Hercule Poirot into a wild-eyed cartoonish creation.

If you’ve seen playwright Patrick Barlow’s 2005 send-up of the Alfred Hitchcock film “The 39 Steps,” you’re in familiar territory. Just six actors play a combined 26 characters in the Christie story, and — as in Barlow’s play — the actors are often hilariously called on to change characters (via a new hat, wig or beard) onstage at a moment’s notice to keep the dialogue flowing. That irrepressible “let’s put on a show” spirit gives the show an effervescent zing.

The actors also work with minimal props — tables, chairs, picture frames and some amusingly costumed lawn-bowling pins — to create the world of the story, which is set by a golf course in the French countryside, where Poirot and his sidecick, Capt. Hastings, arrive to solve an unexpected murder.

Dietz does a great job winnowing Christie’s 300-page novel into a colorfully worded and fast-paced mystery saga, hinting at Poirot’s well-known obsessive tendencies but making him more kookily endearing than insufferable (as Christie once described him). Leading the cast as Poirot, Omri Schein has a stuffy and peculiar manner but devilish glee in his eyes as he childishly delights in stumping the conflicted Hastings.

Dietz’s script calls for Hastings to be played by an actor of the opposite gender from the actor playing Poirot. This adds a fresh dynamic to the traditional Holmes-and-Watson style male detective duo. Dressed in a man’s dapper suit, Kim Morgan Dean plays Hastings with plucky earnestness and dashing style.

The other four actors each play from four to seven roles, expertly swinging between multiple accents and dialects and speedy costume changes.

Brian Mackey is the most entertaining, alternating between the soft-spoken British son of the murdered man and an outrageously accented French inspector. Matthew Salazar-Thompson and Jennifer Erdmann both adroitly juggle seven French, British and German characters each, and Jessica Mosher plays five young British and French heroines and mystery women.

Marty Burnett’s tongue-in-cheek scenic design has two large cabinet walls with pop-open panels for stagehands to pass props through. Elisa Benzoni’s costumes have the look of 1950s film noir. Matt Novotny created lighting, composer Robertson Witmer designed the sound and Peter Herman’s hair, wigs and beards add to the fun.

I found myself getting confused late in the play by all of the secondary female characters — a mistress, a mom and daughter and twin acrobats — as well as the convoluted details of the crime. But the real reward in “Murder on the Links” isn’t closing the case. It’s the fun of watching the magic of theater unfold.

When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through May 21

Where: North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach

Tickets: $54-$65

Phone: (858) 481-1055