Sunday, September 29, 2013

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Wait Until Dark"

Full disclosure: The reviewer is a member of the Board of Directors of the Cloverdale Playhouse.

Frederick Knott's 1966 thriller Wait Until Dark -- best known for the film version starring Audrey Hepburn -- is a follow-up hit to his Dial M for Murder. . . and the genre is being given a tensely enjoyable showing at the Cloverdale Playhouse under the astute direction of Eleanor K. Davis.

Ms. Davis has gathered an ensemble of experienced actors (and a star-in-the-making in the person of young Miette Crim) who, with the collaborative support of the design team's detailed creation of period and character driven set-lights-sound-costumes, deliver a suspenseful evening in the theatre.

There are several twists and turns in the complicated plot revolving around young recently-blind Susy Hendrix [Rhonda Crim] in her attempts to both maneuver through her Greenwich Village basement apartment and thwart the designs of a trio of con-men/thugs who will stop at nothing to retrieve some heroin smuggled into the country inside a doll that Susy's husband Sam [Stephen Dubberly], unaware of its contents, had carried as a favor to a woman at the airport.

The trio, believing that the doll is in Susy's apartment, assume a number of disguises as they insinuate themselves into her life while Sam is kept away from home on a ruse invented by the sinister Harry Roat [Mark Hunter] and his accomplices pretending to be a policeman, Sgt. Carlino [Greg Babb] and a "friend" of Sam's named Mike Talman [Scott Page]. -- While Carlino assumes the role of a detective searching for the murderer of a woman in Susy's neighborhood (the same woman who gave Sam the doll), he is also obsessed with erasing any possible fingerprints. Talman meanwhile ingratiates himself with Susy and appears to be her protector. And Roat assumes two roles -- both father and son -- who claim to be related to the murdered woman, and who variously accuse Sam of having had an affair with her.

Susy's 10-year-old neighbor Gloria [Miette Crim] runs errands for her, often reluctantly, and she has a bit of a temperamental streak; but when Susy conscripts her to help in a serious "adventure" to catch the thugs, she relishes the opportunity and is essential for Susy's success. Well done.

There is a huge amount of exposition in the play that the ensemble make dramatically interesting as they invest thoroughly in their characters and with one another. -- The sinister plotting and the deviousness of the antagonists could in lesser hands be reduced to melodramatic grandstanding, but as Susy begins to put the pieces together and determines to outwit the thugs at their own game, their credibility is never in doubt.

Mr. Babb's "Carlino" is as gruff as they come in his role of detective: a familiar type that he makes his own with confidence and a touch of humor. -- Mr. Page is utterly convincing as "Mike Talman", the kindly friend; we have to be reminded now and then that he is a con-man. No wonder that Susy believes him without a shred of evidence: only his gently supportive manner. -- Mr. Hunter's depictions of "Roat, Senior" and "Roat, Junior" are masterful ruses; but beneath these roles is the ruthless fanatic seething underneath, whose smooth unblinking calm oozes with criminal intent.

Our sympathies lie with Susy from the outset. Her blindness, first seen as a disability that needs to be overcome with gentle prodding by Sam, later becomes her ace-in-the-hole as she turns the tables on the crooks. Ms. Crim takes us on her character's journey as we watch her stumble or grope her way around the apartment in domestic chores. As she discovers her independence through a heightened sense of hearing, she realizes what the con-men have been doing: Carlino wiping fingerprints, sending signals to each other outside the apartment by opening and closing window blinds, the sound of Roat's shoes and identical style of walking of Roat Senior & Junior.

Tension mounts in Ms. Davis's production as the inevitability of the doll's being found in the apartment makes for a life and death show-down, leading to a final scene played in the dark when Susy and Gloria extinguish all the lights while the bad guys descend on them. (Even for those who remember the impact of the film's final moments, audible gasps demonstrate that this scene retains its shock value.)

Wisely, Ms. Davis has kept the 1960s ambiance intact by respecting Knott's script. The coincidences inherent in the thriller genre, Susy's trusting nature, airport security, and such might make us today question the credibility of the script; but as Ms. Davis and her entire company on and off stage approach it with absolute confidence, audiences can't help but accept and get involved with them...and have a good time in the theatre.