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CITY REP'S `MURDER ON NILE' DOESN'T QUITE KNOW WHERE TO DOCK

Agatha Christie's "Murder on the Nile," the stage version of her novel, "Death on the Nile," doesn't know quite where to dock. It steers a rather crooked course, veering between comedy and melodrama and straight drama, but it's never the same as simply curling up with a good mystery.It's certainly not in the same league as the same author's more dramatic "Witness for the Prosecution" and "Ten Little Indians" or her legendary thriller, "The Mousetrap."

But it IS entertaining and Stuart Mitchell's cast, by and large, gives the audience a better-than-average performance, albeit uneven.

The most frustrating thing I've found in City Rep's productions is the company's consistent . . . inconsistency. The company seems to take a mix-and-match approach to casting - mixing some very talented actors along with "community theater"-level performers, maybe hoping everything will come out OK in the wash. Unfortunately, what usually happens is that the less experienced actors drag the entire performance down to their level, instead of what should be the other way around.

"Murder on the Nile," fares better than most, however, and does have its moments.

Vincent C. Hall does a fine job in the central role of Hercule Poirot, Belgian detective extraordinaire.

"It is not safe here," he warns us, once all the passengers are aboard the S.S. Karnak, before it steams its way up the Nile.

It would also not be safe to wander into this play late, or you'd miss the lengthy prologue and the introduction of many of the nearly 20 possible suspects/victims in an evening of crime that will ultimately amount to five corpses.

Christie's boarding list for the steamer S.S. Karnak is a motley assortment indeed - an estranged lover, a pair of newlyweds, a jewel thief, an author, a financial wheeler-dealer, a domineering mother, a couple of mousy young women, a German doctor, a hot-headed young revolutionary and a mysterious Italian.

Some scenes are so frenzied that, for one fleeting moment, I thought a few pages of the script from "Noises Off" had been slipped into the production - just to muddy the waters. And the playwright throws in a couple of cheap tricks, too - like dousing the lights during one on-stage scuffle, effectively covering up one of the play's important clues.

Christie always had a penchant for packing an overabundance of potential suspects into her stories, and this is no exception. Everyone from butlers and chambermaids to high-society swells have motives - and ample opportunity - for creating mayhem in the convoluted whodunit.

The show has a big cast, nearly 30 performers and 24 specific speaking roles. There's little, if any, opportunity for necessary character development.

The role of rejected lover Jacqueline de Bellefort is a stretch for Sharon Kenison, who's appeared in several comedies at Desert Star Playhouse, but Jennifer O'Haley, as the flamboyant authoress, Salome Otterbourne, seemed to be hamming it up much of the time (although, admittedly, it is a role that lends itself to such carryings-on).

Owen Richardson Jr.'s art-deco scenery functions very well, with a few rapid changes, as a variety of settings - the Cataract Hotel courtyard and lounge, and both the promenade deck and observation salon of the S.S. Karnak.

The silent screen-style slides projected on a screen at the rear of the stage help delineate the locales and time frames of some of the scenes (although one was projected backward on opening night). A few more slides could lessen the confusion that comes with three scenes all in a row in the hotel courtyard.

City Rep, however, has made some marked improvements in its sound and staging, with the installation of drapes on both sides of the stage. This has cut down the width (which was far too big anyway) of the stage, creating better acoustics and providing much-needed wing space in the bargain.

An improved sound system has also made a noticeable difference, although there are still a few dead spots where dialogue is somewhat muffled.

Lisa Bostwick's elegant and dapper costume designs also help set the right tone.

"Murder on the Nile" is far from perfect, but much of this is the fault of the play itself. Frankly, it's showing its age. The steamer's final destination, Wadi Halfa, just across the Egyptian border in the Sudan, no longer exists. It was flooded by the High Dam at Aswan.

But Christie fans are legion and they should get a kick out of this, despite some uneven acting.