WASHINGTON — Washington-- A good mystery-thriller needs two basic components. It should fool you (that's the mystery part), and it should scare you (that's the thriller part). In addition, if it's a stage play, it needs one thing more -- spine-tingling acting.
Rupert Holmes' "Solitary Confinement," at the Kennedy Center on an extended pre-Broadway tour, isn't particularly frightening; there are more thrills and chills in Washington rush-hour traffic. But the play does have a humdinger of a twist. And best of all, it has a virtuoso performance by Stacy Keach as an eccentric, reclusive tycoon named Richard Jannings.
The title refers to Jannings' voluntary seclusion in the penthouse of Jannings Industries, a conglomerate whose exact nature is never defined. Jannings dresses in black, has a predilection for games and magic, prefers to work while everyone else sleeps and communicates with his employees via a large-screen, closed-circuit television system that allows him to see them, though they can't see him.
At first, this is a rather distracting device; even an actor as dexterous as Keach is occasionally upstaged by characters whose huge images are projected on a screen centered smack-dab against the rear wall of the set. Needless to say, the playwright uses this distraction to good effect. But how he does this -- and to what end -- must remain a mystery. Without spoiling the fun, suffice it to say that nearly all of Jannings' employees seem to detest him. Much of what follows is clever hocus-pocus with smoke and mirrors. What can be discussed is Keach's exuberant performance. The character fits him like a sword in a scabbard or a gun in a holster or . . .well, you get the idea. If the part wasn't written for him, it has certainly acquired some custom-made touches.
Near the beginning, when Jannings wants to hear some wake-up music, he selects Grieg's "Peer Gynt Suite" -- surely no coincidence since Keach played the lead in Ibsen's "Peer Gynt" at the New York Shakespeare Festival. And just before intermission, the actor affects a limp borrowed from his starring role in "Richard III" at Washington's Shakespeare Theatre last season.
But the overall spirit of Keach's performance is what carries the show. Watching him portray self-satisfied Jannings, you are watching a satisfied actor. More than that, he positively delights in this role, and that delight is contagious.
Still, delight can't disguise the niggling inconsistencies in the plot,most of which concern improbable breaches in Jannings' security. For instance, assuming a mysterious package could find its way into his heavily guarded inner sanctum, is it likely he would open it himself? (Another quibble: Despite the stylishness of William Barclay's set, a show this dependent on technology needs less flimsy scenery.)
Of course, slip-ups are frequently the basis for crimes -- as well as their solutions. Although the playwright is the creator of the solve-it-yourself musical, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," he does provide a solution to "Solitary Confinement." And while this whodunit may not be as slick as "Sleuth," it's a lot livelier than "Deathtrap." One teensy-weensy clue: The mystery isn't over when it's over. Hang around for the curtain call; it's the best scene in the show.
"Solitary Confinement" continues at Kennedy Center through April 5. Call (202) 467-4600.