Category: Archive

Summer thriller

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

In the l938 season, that spot was occupied by “Angel Street,” by a little known British novelist, Patrick Hamilton, who had, in 1929, written “Rope,” a play based on the story of the notorious “thrill killers” Leopold and Loeb. In 1948, Alfred Hitchcock turned “Rope” into one of his few truly experimental films, doing scenes in takes of precisely 10 minutes in length, that being the length in which unexposed film was packed in those days.
On Broadway, “Angel Street” starred Vincent Price and Judith Evelyn and ran for nearly three years. In 1944, MGM scored a great hit with “Gaslight,” the name under which “Angel Street” was filmed, with George Cukor as director. Ingrid Bergman, then recently arrived from Sweden, had her first significant American success in the movie, winning a Best Actress Academy Award, with Charles Boyer and Joseph Cotton co-starring.
An earlier filmed version of the play, supposedly superior to Cukor’s American rendering, and also titled “Gaslight,” was made in Britain in l940, with Diana Wynyard starring and Thorold Dickinson directing.
“Angel Street,” a summer theater favorite for decades, has seldom been revived on a New York stage. Some 20 years ago, it returned to Broadway with Dina Merrill in the central role and lasted only a few weeks, closing quickly and being consigned to the theatrical record books as a kind of forgettable footnote.
Now, somewhat puzzlingly, Hamilton’s play, under the movie title, has turned up at the estimable Irish Repertory Theatre in a production which, although it seems unlikely to add much luster to the group’s reputation, may very well prove to be something of an early summer crowd pleaser, scheduled to run through July 8.
Among the new staging’s virtues are the Rep’s by now predictably clever deployment of its limited stage space, and one really outstanding performance, namely the unfailing Brian Murray’s sly, skilled work as a variant of the character played in the MGM film by Joseph Cotton. Murray’s man is a retired police officer bearing the single name, Rough, a jaded fellow who brings warmth, humor and wisdom tinged with sadness to everything he does, even to the solving of one murder and the prevention of another one.
Not for the first time, the exquisitely skilled Murray, a Rep regular born in South Africa, mines laughter and compassion from the decidedly thin soil of a play which, never precisely an outstanding work for the theater, has compounded the felony by aging rather poorly. The word “claptrap” comes to mind unbidden, as do images of sows’ ears and silk purses.
The staging by the Irish Rep’s artistic director, Charlotte Moore, is serviceable, and, for the most part, decently paced, but it can’t do much in the way of papering over the deep cracks which have appeared over the years in Hamilton’s jerry-built old melodramatic contraption.
As Bella Manningham, a role filled in the past by a string of mainly mature leading ladies, Laura Odeh, who did strong work in the Rep’s production of G.B. Shaw’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” a couple of seasons back, seems immature and is all too often strident to the point of being downright screechy and, at times, even somewhat inaudible.
As her husband, Mr. Manningham, a culprit who, it turns out, had something of a criminal career under his real name, Charlie Powers, David Staller, from the outset, radiates such obvious evil that it’s difficult to believe he could have deceived anyone for more than an instant. Playing Manningham in Cukor’s movie was one of the very few occasions on which, in the course of a long and rich career, Charles Boyer opted to portray a villain, which he did with vastly more subtlety and nuance than is visible on West 22nd Street.
It might be interesting to see what would happen if the principal “Gaslight” actors were to exchange parts on an alternating basis, with, for example, Murray playing Manningham at one performance, and Rough at the next, while Staller plays first the cop and then the vicious husband. This idea isn’t as radical as it may sound. Major British actors have been doing it for years, switching leading roles in plays ranging from Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” to Shakespeare’s “King Lear” and even “Othello.”
“Gaslight” isn’t a fresh jewel in the Irish Rep’s ever-expanding galaxy of achievements, but it does provide a couple of hours of diverting, undemanding entertainment. Think of the Rep taking an innocent, very temporary flyer as a part-time summer playstation.

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