By Joseph Hurley
NIGHT MUST FALL, by Emlyn Williams. Directed by John Tillinger. Starring Matthew Broderick, Judy Parfitt and J. Smith-Cameron. Produced by he National Actors Theatre. At the Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St., NYC. Through April 11
An Irish lad of uncertain provenance is summoned to an isolated house in Essex, England, to confront the dowager employer of the serving girl he has rather casually impregnated. That’s the classic setup.
Danny, the interloper from across the Irish Channel, was a young Welshman where "Night Must Fall," Emlyn Williams’s thriller, was first produced in London, where it was a smash, and then, shortly thereafter, in New York, where it was less successful.
In those early stagings, the role of the charmingly boyish killer was played by author Williams, but the ethnic adjustment in the new production director John Tillinger has put together for Tony Randall’s National Actors Theatre appears to have been made to accommodate the Irish-American star, Matthew Broderick, son of the late and much lamented actor, James Broderick, who died just as his son’s career was taking shape.
It’s long been a Broadway truism that any given theatrical season can use a solid thriller, with "Dial M For Murder" ranking high on the list of examples of the genre, and the seldom-revived "Night Must Fall," even in a reasonably scrupulous production, falling a few rungs below.
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Williams’s play, filmed in 1937 with Robert Montgomery in the lead, and then in 1964 with Albert Finney in the role, is often referred to as "the one about the head in the hatbox," although the playwright, out of respect for the audience and perhaps the prop department, shows us the hatbox but never the head.
Truth to tell, "Night Must Fall" hasn’t aged as well as might have been expected, and, viewed in the new production, it doesn’t really seem quite up to the genre classic status it has somehow acquired over the years when nobody actually saw it.
The basic thriller elements are securely in place. Mrs. Bramson’s Tudor house is demonstrably remote, and her household staff, including a paid "companion" who is actually a niece, is suitably resentful, not to mention possessed of one of two secrets of their own.
The house, skillfully designed by James Noone, is rendered in tones of black, gray and white, as are the appropriate, imaginative costumes by Jess Goldstein, as though director Tillinger, by making his new staging of the play resemble the movies of the 1930s, could give the tale a more solid grounding than would be the case if normal color were a part of the mix.
In this kind of play, rough weather is to be expected, and, sure enough, Brian McDevitt’s lighting combines with the sound plot provided by Aural Fixation to deliver a couple of the most terrifying storms to be encountered on a Broadway stage within memory, augmented by the skillful musical score by David Van Tieghem.
Playwright Williams has taken one major risk with "Night Must Fall," and his daring probably accounts for the success the play has enjoyed over the years. In most examples of the thriller genre, the identity of the killer is a matter of speculation until the final moments of the evening.
The miscreant in Williams’s play is pinpointed almost from his first entrance, and even earlier, if you take into accounts a rather startling prologue Tillinger has created for this production. It isn’t so much that the audience is unaware of the real nature of Danny’s character, but rather than they are expected to remain glued to the story in the hope of learning how and why he does what he does, and who will be his next victim, if, indeed, there is to be one.
Actor Broderick’s stock in trade, ever since he made his debut, at age 17, playing opposite his father in an off-Broadway production of Horton Foote’s "On Valentine’s Day," has been an easy, free-flowing charm, and the quality proves extremely useful in "Night Must Fall," where his character must alternately beguile or seduce most of the other members of the cast to one degree or other.
Mrs. Bramson, the householder, is generally cast with a considerably older actress than Britain’s Judy Parfitt, who plays the role in the current revival. Parfitt, perhaps best known to American audiences for her performance as the alcoholic in the television series "The Jewel in the Crown," seems both too young and too clear-headed for the part of an elderly woman who is, by turns, tyrannical and dotty, ruling her domestic retinue by doling out nugatory amounts of the cash she keeps in a wallsafe in her drawing room.
Parfitt is so young, in fact, that her response to Danny’s calculated "charm" takes on an almost sexual aspect not normally present in the text.
Apart from the underwritten role of Dora Parkoe, the pregnant housemaid played rather perfunctorily by Seana Kofoed, whatever romance exists in "Night Must Fall" is contained in the relationship between Danny and the old lady’s niece, Olivia Grayne, played here by the inventive and dexterous J. Smith-Cameron.
The actress has tackled the play’s most difficult role, since, despite having taken Danny’s measure accurately right from the start, she is still sufficiently won over by his charm that she protects him, even at the potential loss of her own life.
By now, 63 years or so after it was written, "Night Must Fall" creaks a bit and not even as skilled a director as John Tillinger seems to have been able to fully disguise the aspects of old rig that no longer play convincingly.
Even so, there is fun to be had in this kind of contraption, particularly when an actor as nimble and as adroit as Matthew Broderick is putting as much into it — and getting as much out of it — as is the case with "Night Must Fall" at the Lyceum Theatre.