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Thrills in the dark

Theater Review: "Wait Until Dark" at Geva 

Thrills in the dark

Until fairly recently, genre plays — romantic comedies, murder mysteries, and so on — were a theatrical staple, whether on Broadway or in community theaters. Movies, and especially TV, gradually took them over (without making them any less formulaic). But the best of these plays are tidily written, and when they are well performed, they're still entertaining.

Geva's newest production, "Wait Until Dark," brings back a pretty sturdy example of another genre, the thriller, cat-and-mouse subdivision. And brings it back nicely. The 1966 play by Frederick Knott, who also wrote "Dial M for Murder", has all the right jigsaw pieces presented in the right order: an innocent couple caught in a deadly plot; an urban setting; cops on the take; psychopathic villains; characters who seem extraneous to the story but end up to be central.

Here's about as much of the story as I can give away: Susan (Brooke Parks) and her husband Sam (Remi Sandri), a photographer, have been unknowingly caught up in a plot to smuggle diamonds, which have been sewn up in a doll which was slipped into Sam's satchel. The doll is somewhere in their apartment, and two nasty, murderous thugs (Craig Bockhorn and Ted Koch) are determined to find it. They are aided by a more sympathetic character, Mike (Peter Rini), posing as a war buddy of Sam's, and Susan is helped by a neighbor girl (Lauren Schaffel) who is supposed to take care of her but doesn't do a very good job, at least at first.

The heroine, Susan, is blind, and ends up in a darkened apartment defending herself against the nastiest of the thugs in the cat-and-mouse game referred to above. This violent encounter, let's be honest, is the one reason anybody does this play. It's suspenseful and scary and plays skillfully on an audience's fear of the dark (which, come to think of it, is where an audience should be).

Alfred Hitchcock didn't direct the movie version of "Wait Until Dark" (he did direct "Dial M for Murder"), but he well might have — it has many of his hallmarks, even the MacGuffin, the thing everybody wants and that gets the plot going, in this case the doll with the diamonds. The play isn't great literature, but it follows the rules of the game. The plot is nicely tied up, there are quite a few jokes to lighten (and sometimes enhance) the tension, and the right people are left at the end.

I'm not familiar with Frederick Knott's original play, but the adaptation by Jeffrey Hatcher that Geva is presenting seems like a clever and sensible job. Hatcher takes the original 1960's setting and backdates it to 1944, adding a bit more psychological depth to the script and adding a film noir touch here and there. (Bringing the story into the present day is not an option, given the crucial importance of dial telephones in the story ... and that's all I will say, except to add that after you see this play you will never look at your refrigerator's light bulb in quite the same way.) The clichéd characters come off better in the period setting, and moving to a time when blind people really were considered helpless points up Susan's resourcefulness in outwitting her tormentors.

Director David Ira Goldstein puts an able cast through its paces effectively. Convoluted thrillers can get very confusing very quickly, but the story is clear and well-paced, and Goldstein helps the actors to give some nuance to their roles. Brooke Parks is charming and clever as Susan, and she's also pretty impressive when she becomes an avenging fury, butcher knife in hand. Parks's naturalness and likeability make up for the slightly condescending treatment of the "plucky blind girl." As the object of Susan's fury, Ted Koch brings a gravelly, Brando-like voice and an impressive creepiness to the role of a truly psycho killer. He enters in the first moments of the play, and you immediately know he is up to no good.

The rest of the cast basically supports these two and their inevitable battle. As the two other men in on the plot, Craig Bockhorn fits the template of the corrupt NYC ex-cop down perfectly, and Peter Rini makes an effectively deceptive nice guy as the most sympathetic con man (don't worry, he's not that sympathetic). Remi Sandri is rather wasted in the role of Sam, who is something of a MacGuffin in the plot himself, and Lauren Schaffel is remarkably convincing as the bratty girl who redeems herself by helping Susan.

Given its modest setting of a basement apartment in Greenwich Village, Vicki Smith's set for "Wait Until Dark" is an impressive one. It's one of those realistic, detailed interior sets that Geva does so well; it also enhances the 40's ambience in its lack of bright colors, and makes good use of a steep staircase, not to mention some all-important venetian blinds.

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