Murder on the Nile, the second of three Agatha Christie whodunits running in staggered repertory as part of N.C. State's TheatreFest, is a proudly timeworn contraption. Apparently, it already was back in 1946, when critic Bernard Buckham wrote of the original London production: "An Agatha Christie play, but a poor one. Various acts of violence on a pleasure steamer and it becomes a question of 'who murdered the bride?' At this time of day such a setup needs to have character interest, ingenuity of plot and excitement. This piece falls down on them all."
Buckham's assessment still applies, but that isn't necessarily a deterrent. Farce gives actors and directors a sort of political carte blanche to play fast and loose with stereotypes. Murder on the Nile, with its hot-and-bothered women and its offhandedly snobbish colonial anti-Islamism, is ripe for winking postfeminist raunch and Iraq-era indulgences in bigotry.
Save for a casting choice that suggests a Stein/ Toklas coupling, this production plays Christie straight down the Nile, and so it needs the rapid-fire precision—slamming doors, antic sight gags, beeline stage crossings—that makes farce's motor run, along with professionally processed ham-and-cheese acting. But mostly, the cast is left to sit or stand around, entrusted to their individual means with generally infelicitous results: horrendous foreign accents, tepid presence and commitment and, on opening night, a climactic gunshot cue so badly botched that the audience fell apart in bemused titters, which at least hydrated the laughter-parched production a little.
What's remarkable about the whodunit genre is that even a clueless example somehow manages to maintain interest through to the killer's disclosure in the third act, even though the culprit can be correctly guessed in the first. You leave Thompson Hall aware that you got what you paid for.
Paying for it is the point. Given that TheatreFest helps support N.C. State's drama department (a program insert invites the audience on a 10-day, $2,775 "Deluxe Egyptian Adventure" to benefit university arts programs), it's understandable that the company would extract its summer stock from Agatha Christie's bouillon cubes. When a theater isn't concerned with making interesting art, and when it can't manage to make even passable entertainment, that's usually because it's focused on making something else: money.