Thriller lacks scares, but has lots of screams


Vagabond Players presents a spirited yet troubled play

October 30, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

No doubt about it - actress Laurel Burggraf can scream with the best of 'em. When she lets loose a blood-curdling yell - which she does early and often in Peter Colley's I'll Be Back Before Midnight - she makes you want to run for cover.

And that's as it should be since Colley's play is a thriller, which has opened just in time for Halloween at the Vagabond Players.

But aside from Burggraf's strong vocal cords (and strong overall performance), this is a rather troubled production. The chief problem is that, under James Knipple's direction, it's difficult to tell whether the show is intended as a psychological chiller or a merely a spoof of one.

I suspect it's the former, largely because much of the laughter it elicited on opening night seemed to be of the "laughing at," not "laughing with," variety. A good deal of that laughter resulted from the delivery of such leaden lines as: "She's dead. There'll be time for explanations later."

As thrillers go, the plot holds some promise. A young husband rents a secluded cabin in the hope that he and his wife can rekindle their marriage and that she, newly released from a psychiatric hospital, can continue her recovery from a nervous breakdown.

The fact that the cabin is supposedly haunted and that the husband knew this when he rented the place makes you wonder if he has her best interests in mind. There's even more reason to wonder when he invites his sister - whom his wife loathes - to join them.

Add to the mix the couple's landlord - a gruff farmer who likes nothing better than recounting the cabin's scary history - and all the ingredients for a spooky night appear to be in place. But several clumsy effects shift the balance even more toward seemingly unintentional comedy. Prime examples are an amplified heartbeat that sounds more like a drum and a ghoulish rubber mask that wouldn't frighten a trick-or-treater.

Playing her second mentally unstable protagonist in a row (the first was in Christopher Durang's Identity Crisis for Run of the Mill Theater last month), Burggraf again brings empathy and understatement to her role. Her character is so skittish, she's startled by her own reflection in a mirror, but Burggraf's low-key approach manages to make even this appear credible.

Nicholas Perrone initially does fine as the husband, although his character's eventual transformation feels strained. Bryon Predika's teddy-bearish depiction of the landlord contributes the one obviously intentional touch of comic relief to the proceedings. But Cynthia Scott's portrayal of the meddling sister-in-law is so wooden, it's not only the troubled wife who wants her out of the way.

At this time of year, there may be a temptation to trot out the same old thrillers, so the theater deserves commendation for finding something less familiar. Too bad the production's inconsistencies in tone replace some potentially spine-tingling moments with titters.

Show times at the Vagabond Players, 806 S. Broadway, are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays, through Nov. 23. Tickets are $12. For more information, call 410-563-9135.

Montel Williams

Talk show host Montel Williams will be back in his hometown next month to appear in one performance of The Exonerated at the Mechanic Theatre. On Friday, Nov. 14, Williams will join headliners Lynn Redgrave and Robert Carradine in this documentary drama about freed death row inmates.

This won't be Williams' maiden voyage with The Exonerated. A veteran of the off-Broadway production, he has co-starred in the touring production opposite Redgrave before, and last spring he participated in a version of the play presented for the annual meeting of the American Bar Association.

Written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, The Exonerated is based on interviews with the exonerees and is presented as a staged reading. Williams will portray Delbert Lee Tibbs, a former theology student who served three years for murder and rape.

The Exonerated runs Nov. 11-23 at the Mechanic, 25 Hopkins Plaza. Show times are 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and 1 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $22.50-$60. For more information, call 410-481-SEAT.

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