Arena's old-fashioned 'Angel Street' suspenseful but slow-going in places

April 30, 1992|By Winifred Walsh | Winifred Walsh,Contributing Writer

An elderly lady's unsolved murder and the missing Barlow jewels are the keys to Patrick Hamilton's old-fashioned but taut suspense thriller, "Angel Street," currently on stage at the Arena Playhouse through May 17.

Set in an opulent townhouse on Angel Street in 1880's London, the play is a classic example of wife abuse carried out on a highly sophisticated level.

Although the play first premiered in London more than 50 years ago and then moved on to a successful New York run, the story of a diabolical English gentleman slowly trying to drive his wife insane is still compelling today.

Indeed, the '40s movie adaptation starring Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotton and Angela Lansbury, remains a film noir treasure.

All the roles (except the two policemen) have been double-cast in the Arena Players' production.

As directed by Robert Russell, the show is paced much too slow and the right sense of timing -- so significant in a suspense thriller -- is missing from crucial scenes.

However, the performances of Cynthia Francis-Forbes as the oppressed Bella Manningham and Floyd Gilliam as the demonic Jack Manningham are pretty solid.

In the play, the house has an eerie aura of Victorian gloom and is lighted entirely by gaslight. The Manninghams have occupied the residence for several years. Manningham purchased the house with money from his wife's inheritance.

As the play opens, Bella is in a nervous quandary. Her husband has coldly requested that she replace a picture that is missing from the wall. She protests. He reduces her to tears and humiliates her before Nancy, the insolent Cockney maid. Nancy treats Bella with contempt and openly flirts with Jack.

Lonely, and left to her own devices most evenings as her husband prowls the town, the overwrought Bella often hears noises emanating from the top floor of the house (an area she is forbidden by Jack to enter) and watches in fear as the gaslights dim.

Convinced she is going mad like her deceased mother, Bella's life takes on a hopeful turn when a Scotland Yard detective comes to call.

Inspector Rough assures her she is not going mad and that her husband has been playing, for his own nefarious reasons, a cruel cat and mouse game.

The tables are turned in the second act when Rough and Manningham clash in the final conflict.

In a role in which she is on stage almost all of the time, Francis-Forbes delivers an outstanding, sensitive performance and rises well to her last emotional confrontation.

Gilliam is a consistently cold, dapper and nasty Manningham, relishing his wife's pitiful demise.

Cassandra Miller plays a kindly, understanding housekeeper but Monica Melton in the choice role of Nancy lacks the perky, saucy qualities inherent to this character.

As Rough, Reginald Thomas disappoints. The role of the Scotland Yard inspector is one of earthy normalcy, brusqueness and heartening cheer. He should command the stage with his relaxed but strong presence.

So far, Thomas exhibits none of these qualities. The actor also needs stronger vocal projection and purposeful movement to carry off this pivotal part.

*

A high-spirited cast and exceptional choreography by Robert Jenkins distinguishes another local version of the '60s smash musical hit "Mame," now playing at the White Marsh Dinner Theatre through June 28.

Based on the amusing novel by Patrick Dennis and the subsequent play, the show's music and lyrics are by Jerry Herman who also wrote the bubbling score for "Hello, Dolly."

The story of the escapades of a wealthy bohemian and her young nephew has been well staged by John Desmone. This lively production features a charming performance by Dori Armor-Watson in the title role and a delightfully theatrical performance by Nancy Tarr Hart as the jaded stage actress, Vera Charles (Mame's best friend).

Armor-Watson and Hart have a field day in their hilarious duet, "Bosom Buddies." Other outstanding production numbers include "Open a New Window," "It's Today," "That's How Young I Feel."

Kimberly Catherine Auty is first-rate as the unworldly Agnes who decides to "LIVE!" Her comic, wailing song after she becomes pregnant -- "What Do I Do Now? -- is a riot.

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