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Carmine DePaulo and Ryk Houseman fight over a hat in "And Then There Were None," staged by Santa Clara Players.

It's been an Agatha Christie spring on the Peninsula. First San Mateo's Crystal Springs Players staged the English mystery writer's most famous play, "Mousetrap." Now Santa Clara Players are performing what is probably Christie's second most famous play, "And Then There Were None," based on her novel, "Ten Little Indians," which has sold more than 100 million copies.

In "And Then There Were None," two boatloads of guests who've never met before arrive at a big empty party house on a deserted island off the coast of Devon, each invited by a friend, acquaintance or connection who doesn't show up. The host is also a no-show.

Suddenly someone plays a phonograph record, and each guest hears a prosecutor's voice indicting them of individual misdeeds in their distant pasts that resulted in the deaths of other people.

It's judgment day. One by one, the guests start being killed.

What makes Christie such a good mystery writer? She's certainly not the best stylist in the world. But her mysteries leave the competition in the dust. She has radar for the deeper imprints of human psychology.

In "And Then There Were None," as the various characters start to die, the remaining characters look at each other and start pointing fingers. What's very true about humans is that we can all cook up plausible reasons why our neighbors, friends and others are guilty of this behavior or that.

Christie channels the finger-pointing impulse,


and that's part of what sends this story home emotionally. Once she's done this, every entrance and exit a character makes on stage is imbued with meaning.

As the murders increase, the group of people alive shrinks in proportion to the group that has died, and the finger-pointing frenzy increases. The winds blow, the power goes, and soon they're down to candlelight.

In the Santa Clara Players production, actor Mandy Manousos creates a sexy impression as an upper class flapper with lots of ex-lovers, hoping to party hardy on the deserted island. In her past, she ran over a couple of young people in her car while out on the town.

John Baldwin is the show's strongest performer, stepping forward as a retired judge who leads efforts to solve the mystery. He's indicted for sending to death a man his jury had voted to free.

This show is classic community theater. These are your friends and neighbors up on stage. For many, the English accents are a struggle, and the production is slow to lift off. (Next time, the company might add an accent coach.) Once past that, everyone settles in, and Christie's mystery magic takes over.

There's some great sound design in director Ana-Catrina Buchser's production, as a track with seashore waves breaking on the coast provides background throughout, at a subtle, low level.

Another powerful component of Christie's mystery writing technique is that the indicted characters, who start almost unaware of their ancient past crimes, slowly connect back with old emotions and behaviors which have been long buried in denial. Their awakening becomes part of the fear of the murder mystery story.

The killer, of course, is either you or me. And I know it's not me.

E-mail John Angell Grant at