Wait Until Dark: Theater Review

Michael Lamont
"Wait Until Dark"
Creaky suspense machine operates smoothly thanks to a well-lubricated refurbishment. 

Alison Pill ("The Newsroom") stars in a classic thriller at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood.

Recently blinded Susan (Alison Pill, of The Newsroom) is first manipulated and then terrorized in her basement apartment by three con men searching for a lost doll of great value that had been unknowingly slipped to her absent husband. Insecure and not a little bitter, the vulnerable Susan must muster her resources to outmaneuver her tormentors, turn her disability to advantage, and survive.

This 1966 success by Frederick Knott (Dial M for Murder) originally starred Lee Remick and Robert Duvall under the direction of Arthur Penn (just before he started work on Bonnie and Clyde). It was filmed the following year with Audrey Hepburn (her last hit) and Alan Arkin, becoming a local theater staple, an early HBO canned version and a misbegotten 1998 Broadway revival with Quentin Tarantino. In short, this is a vehicle that has been around, with so many miles it might readily be consigned a junker.

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It’s unclear why the Geffen would be so keen to put it back on the road, but they’ve gone about it intelligently by commissioning the incredibly prolific playwright and serial adapter Jeffrey Hatcher (Compleat Female Stage Beauty, A Picasso, Tuesdays with Morrie, Cousin Bette, The Government Inspector) to rejigger the engine and director Matt Shakman, invaluable founder of the eminent Black Dahlia Ensemble, to guide it round the track. The period has been transposed back to 1944 from 1966, given a wartime light-noir patina, and the brownstone relocated from the Lower East Side to Greenwich Village. In a sense, by positioning the setting as more antique, the story’s datedness becomes more palatable with the distance.

More interestingly, Hatcher and Shakman are unafraid to recognize that the plot machinations can be baldly apparent, so their take is not unlike those repurposed urban spaces that retain the visible industrial pipes and paraphernalia as a design statement. While the audience may well see some (or most) of the twists coming, that anticipation becomes a part of the thriller mechanism, adding a meta-tinge that lends some ersatz contemporary fizz.

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While television has mined most of its inspirations for innumerable episodics, Wait Until Dark remains unquestionably a sturdy construction, no longer surprising yet still satisfyingly tense, evergreen clever, with gratifying thematic undercurrents. Especially upfront, there is a surfeit of prolix exposition, which Shakman sagely keeps breakneck – even unto risking a missed point here and there. He has also loyally kept faith with longtime design collaborators, yielding a satisfying cohesive vision for the piece, with a terrific set and spot-on costumes. Nevertheless, for all the sumptuous mounting and the ingenious lighting gambits, one could still imagine it being nearly as effective as a radio suspenser, as heard by the heroine.

Susan remains a swell role (Remick was nominated for a Tony, and Hepburn for an Oscar), which the reliably talented Pill instills with a distinctive individuality. As the cunning, sadistic Roat, Adam Stein has fun with the hoarier conceits of impersonation and villainy, though his personal best moment on opening night was an improvised cover for a prop failure that lent an inadvertently nihilistic cast to the climax, serendipitously endowing him with a moment of anguished pathos.

Everyone else plays stoutly to type in a patented Forties manner that enjoyably never lapses into the overdone. (Mather Zickel, as the husband’s service buddy, is especially on-point as an ambiguous nice guy.) Unfortunately, the trademark violent shock of the final confrontation no longer has any traction after countless repetitions have reduced it to the show’s most expected trope.

Venue: Geffen Playhouse, Westwood (runs through Nov. 17)

Cast: Alison Pill, Adam Stein, Mather Zickel, Rod McLachlan, Matt McTighe, Brighid Fleming

Director: Matt Shakman

Playwright: Frederick Knott, adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher

Set designer: Craig Siebels

Costume designer: E.B. Brooks

Lighting designer: Elizabeth Harper

Music & sound designer: Jonathan Snipes