EmptyMatrix Theatre, West Hollywood
Through May 4
British playwright Alan Ayckbourn's "Snake in the Grass," receiving its North American premiere at the Matrix Theatre, is a taut little thriller in which family violence, murder most foul and love forbidden lead to a delightfully grisly outcome.
For the most part, it's a civilized little matter, almost like an English version of "Arsenic and Old Lace," that takes place in a crumbling English estate off the beaten track. Yet, into the midst of the apparent civility, Ayckbourn creates a terrifying racket on an abandoned tennis court that leads to some disturbing moments of genuine bone-rattling, scream-inducing fear.
The action takes place upon the return from Tasmania of Annabel Chester (Pamela Salem) to her ancestral home. A failure in business and marriage -- and an uptight, reformed alcoholic to boot -- she has become the new owner of the estate upon the death of her remote, judgmental, abusive father.
While waiting in the garden, haunted by its strangely ominous, overgrown tennis court, for her sister Miriam (Claire Jacobs), a one-time teacher who has lapsed into an alcoholic fog, Annabel is paid a surprise visit by her father's dismissed and dishonored nurse, Alice Moody (Nicola Bertram), who notifies her that murder might have been afoot and that Miriam is the chief suspect. After hinting at blackmail, Moody disappears and Miriam pops up, apparently her old discombobulated self.
As the sisters discuss their plans for the property -- Annabel is set on liquidating it and moving with Miriam to a shabby genteel London suburb while Miriam would rather like to stay in the ruin -- they delve deeper into their nightmarish past and hidden feelings.
While Jacobs engagingly allows her emotional center to careen from anger to submissiveness with a tasty glint of something more sinister in her eyes every now and again, Salem's virtuoso reading keeps her repressed character in line, allowing it to unfold only at a strictly measured pace.
Meanwhile, Bertram captures just the right prickly touch of subservient colonial resentment for Nurse Moody, who keeps entering, going away and entering again before making her final exit.
After intermission, when the audience is plunged into darkness for what turns out to be the seemingly final murderous blows and an unresolved curtain that has two characters wailing in the night, many were shaking in their seats and clutching friends for safety.
The evening is highlighted by Ayckbourn's spare, elegant and frequently ironic dialogue that contains lots of references to sexual objects -- light bulbs, tennis balls, "large" eggs, plumbing courses for women, a hidden trap door over a deep well, not to mention the play's title -- which at first seems scattered carelessly about but which, as they accumulate, create increasingly strong feelings of unease.
In addition to the fine acting, which wisely borders on the Grand Guignol without going over the top, the production is enhanced by Laura Fine Hawkes' superb set, Leigh Allen's eerie lighting and Hal Lindes' subtly atmospheric music. For those requiring a date-night at the theater, "Snake" is just the thing.
SNAKE IN THE GRASS
Presented by Salem K Theatre Company
Playwright: Alan Ayckbourn
Director: Mark Rosenblatt
Assistant director: Margo Lemberger
Set designer: Laura Fine Hawkes
Lighting designer: Leigh Allen
Sound designer: Eric Snodgrass
Costume designer: May Routh
Composer: Hal Lindes
Production stage manager: Young Ji
Annabel Chester: Pamela Salem
Alice Moody: Nicola Bertram
Miriam Chester: Claire Jacobs