Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, January 2007
“You're nothing without me
Without me you're nothing at all”
-David Zippel City of Angels
The character who sings these lyrics is a writer, and he is singing them to his fictional creation. That the fictional creation sings back proves that this is the land of musical comedy, but the point is clear. Characters need writers to create them, and writers need to create great characters. And in the theatre both the writer and the characters depend upon the actors and the director.
I was surprised to read that Frederick Knott (1916-2002), author of Wait Until Dark (1966), Dial "M" for Murder (1952), and not much else, was the most produced playwright of the 20th century after William Shakespeare. I am not entirely convinced that this is true - I might argue the case for Arthur Miller or J. M Barrie - but I am certain it has some basis in fact. Knott’s two thrillers have been widely produced since their creation and they are still regarded as classic examples of their genre.
Since I neither go to the movies nor invest much time in reading thrillers, I was the prime audience member for Ghent’s production of Wait Until Dark. I had had no contact with the story before, and, while I did my research ahead of time, I was careful not to expose myself to any “spoilers” that would give away the ultimate denouement. Every time I mentioned the title of the show people had a positive reaction – their eyes lit up and they smiled as they recalled a satisfying thrill well delivered. Many people mentioned the 1967 film starring Audrey Hepburn, but many others recalled the original Broadway production or another stage performance. There was general agreement that “Wait Until Dark” was a well-crafted story.
And everyone mentioned “the moment.” So I was braced for a fabulous shocking plot twist towards the end, one that, I was assured, would literally take my breath away.
When the curtain came down I turned to my companion and asked, “So, which one was ‘the moment’?” for while there had been some tense times as the play came to its conclusion, there was no one “moment” that did it for me. And I had correctly anticipated the play’s closing tableaux. Nothing had truly shocked me. Yet I understood all the claims that Frederick Knott had written a great thriller, and I also came away reassured that John Trainor is one of our best local directors. What went wrong?
Frankly, the male actors let the writer, the director, and the characters down. The two women in the cast – Jody Kordana in the lead role of blind Suzy Hendrix and young Grace Rugen as her obnoxious neighbor Gloria – did their level best, but without the support of Matthew Sikora as Suzy’s photographer husband Sam, and the criminal trio of Michael Meier as Mike Talman, Tracy Trimm as Sergeant Carlino, and Paul Murphy as Harry Roat (junior and senior), they were pretty well stranded. None of the men managed to rise above the level of adequate amateur acting, and since we must buy in to the threat posed to Suzy by Talman, Carlino, and most of all Roat, in order to care about what happens, there goes the thrill factor. I was frankly more thrilled by the possibility that technical things were going to go wrong (always one of the thrills in live theatre) than by anything the plot or characters had to offer.
A brief plot outline involves several criminals desperately searching for a musical doll filled with a large and valuable stash of heroin, of which Sam Hendrix has been made an unwitting courier (this was long before the days when we were all repeatedly warned not to agree to carry packages for strangers). The doll is missing, and people are dying for it – literally. Convinced that it is in the Hendrix’s basement apartment in Greenwich Village, Roat recruits Talman and Carlino, two down-on-their-luck conmen and ex-cons, to run an elaborate scam to recover it. They begin their efforts as Sam heads out of town on business and Suzy is left home alone with only Gloria, the little girl who lives upstairs, to run errands for her. In the course of less than 24 hours we see the game of cat and mouse between Suzy and the criminals play out. The doll reappears. How far will Roat go to get it?
Kordana was convincing as a blind woman struggling to cope and retain her independence, and Rugen was entertaining as an insecure pre-teen who is secretly thrilled to be able to help Suzy in significant ways. The best scenes involved the two of them, particularly as they caught on to the criminals’ plot and began to implement their own counter-attack.
Knott sets us up from the very beginning to see Roat as a completely ruthless man capable of doing anything at all to get what he wants, but Murphy let the writer and the character down. He tried to play for snake-like charm and ended up acting slightly effeminate. Meier was completely out of his league in the large and demanding role of Talman. Reciting lines on cue is not acting, but that was about Meier and Matthew Sikora seemed capable of. Trimm brought some comic relief to the proceedings, but without the terror there was nothing we needed relief from.
Also, I have to say that I did see holes in Knott’s script. We are asked to believe that Suzy, who has only been blind for about a year, has already developed an acute sense of hearing. She can tell when someone is dusting, she notices the blinds going up and down, and she can not only recognize individuals by the sound of their footsteps but she can tell what kind of shoes they are wearing. Okay, I can buy that. Which is why I can’t buy the scenes in which several other people are in the room with Suzy and she doesn’t know that they are there. Surely she can hear them breathing? And if not that, she would be able to smell them. Human beings have downplayed their sense of smell and the importance of odors, especially over the past century as indoor plumbing, regular bathing, and the use of products that eliminate or at least mask natural body odors have become the norm, but still, we each carry our own unique scent, as anyone who has ever inhaled deeply of a garment once worn by a loved one can tell you. No matter how still someone stands in a room their body will give off heat, odor, and sounds that a blind person could easily pick up on.
And speaking of technical difficulties, accurate light cues are absolutely essential to the success of this play, and I am sure there were a couple of botched ones at the performance I saw. Suzy, obviously, does not need to have the lights on. She has the advantage in the dark, and since the apartment doubles as Sam’s dark room, it is possible to make it very dark indeed. The “moment” to which everyone referred is dependent on Suzy being able to keep her attacker literally in the dark and it is his discovery of a source of light she had not considered that enables him to turn the tables on her. That unexpected light, which we can see and Suzy can’t, although she receives an auditory clue to its presence, needs to slice through the dark like a knife. Because the stage was not completely dark before that light was revealed all the “shock and awe” was drained out of the situation. Darn!
Even with some serious acting deficiencies, Trainor’s clear grasp of the material is evident and he has done the utmost with the materials at hand. Kordana is a real find and I hope to see her back at Ghent again. Robert Bisson has designed an intriguing realistic set that serves the play well (except for that apparently collapsible safe stage right. Why was everyone trying to open it with a key when it obviously had no roof? Could someone nail a piece of plywood on, please?) Joanne Maurer has done her usual competent job with the costumes, although I questioned the choice of overalls for the character of Suzy. Certainly they gave Kordana complete freedom of movement, as her neatly braided hair kept her face in full view, but having the character basically dressed like a child seemed inappropriate to Suzy’s independent nature. Surely, in 1966 in Greenwich Village, she would have been wearing jeans and a peasant blouse with her long hair loose, unless she was one of those Jackie Kennedy throw-back chicks who still teased her hair and wore hose and heels?
Wait Until Dark runs weekends through February 4, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., at the Ghent Playhouse, on Town Hall Road just off Rt. 66 next to the fire station. The show runs two hours with one intermission and is definitely too scary for small children. Call the box office at 518-392-6264 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007