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A CurtainUp Review

Are you trying to gaslight me?— Ever since Vincent Price (on stage) and Charles Boyer (on screen) tried to drive their poor young wives (Judith Evelyn and Ingrid Bergman respectively) mad in a Victorian parlor lit by eerily flickering gaslight, this has been a common verb to define someone who uses deceit to make a point.
David StallerLaura OdehBrian Murray
L-R: David Staller, Laura Odeh& Brian Murray
(Photo: Carol Rosegg).

Patrick Hamilton's Gaslight, a.k.a . Angel Street, is probably one of the most popular examples of the plot and melodrama laden Victorian thriller. It's a genre that's gone the way of the 8:30 curtain and double intermissions. Yet, in the hands of the right director and cast, as it is at the Irish Rep, the chills and thrills story of a young wife deliberately driven mad by her debonair husband and the policeman who unexpectedly comes to her rescue is still a lot of fun. Sure, it's all completely predictable and you know exactly who to hiss and who to root for— but there isn't a ho-hum moment and there are quite a few funny ones.

Murder, madness and wife abuse, funny? Indeed, yes.

It was the blend of humor with the fist clenching unraveling of debonair Jack Manningham's dark past that helped to make the play (titleed Angel Street) a Broadway hit in 1941, despite then relatively unknown actors (Judith Evelyn, Vincent Price & Leo G. Carroll). Gaslight, the somewhat rejiggered film version, memorably cast with Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotton (also Angela Lansbury as the saucy maid), became even more famous, winning an Oscar for Bergman and adding the term "to gaslight" as in "to deceive" to our daily vernacular.

Charlotte Moore's stylish revival has the requisite antique fashions and furnishings (both exceptionally well rendered by Martha Hally and James Morgan, and with aptly flickering gas lighting by Brian Nason). The plot remains as fully furnished with twists and turns as the Victorian parlor where it unspools: Manningham's diabolical cat and mouse game of accusing his sensitive wife of losing objects whose disappearance he manipulated, strange footfalls in the unoccupied attic, shifts in the light from the gas lamps, lost rubies, locked drawers. All this, plus two servants — one of dubious loyalty and virtue (Laoisa Sexton as Nancy), the other true blue (Patricia O'Connell as Elizabeth)— and the intrepid policeman who will force things to a head.

David Staller's Jack Manningham falls somewhere between the hammy Vincent Price style of nastiness and Charles Boyer's more urbane on-screen version. Staller is good looking enough to be a persuasive ladies' man even though he's the unquestionable villain of the piece. Laura Odeh, last seen as King Lear's sexually overwrought sadistic daughter Regan at the Public Theatr (review) and at the Irish Rep as Vivi Warren in Mrs. Warren's Profession ( review) effectively displays a thin vein of iron beneath Bella Manningham's fragile hysteric exterior.

As for Rough, he's a perfect Brian Murray character. Seen too rarely this past year, one hopes this marks his return to being a ubuiquitous presence on and off Broadway. As Staller oozes honeyed menace and Odeh is all shivering nervousness, so Murray's Rough exudes confidence and resolve from the moment he's ushered into the gloomy Manningham parlor. He flashes the toothy grin that's something of a Murray trademark whenever he finds himself closer to his goal of entrapping Mr. Manningham.

Except for conflating the original three acts into two, director Charlotte Moore has wisely stuck with Hamilton's twisty plot. That includes the hat scene dear to the hearts of those who treasure this play as a forerunner of more sophisticated stage thrillers like Wait Until Dark and Deathtrap. According to theatrical lore, there were invariably some audience members during the play's run at the Golden Theater who called out "get the hat." The hat belongs to Rough and is inadvertently overlooked when he and Mrs. Manningham hastily hide all evidence of their meeting before her husband's return. Sure enough, at the matinee I attended, someone whispered a similar warning just before Murray did his amusing "hat trick."

Ms. Moore and her actors have deftly played up the humor without sacrificing the dominance of the thriller elements. The funny business works because it's not overdone. While Rough's part might be considered the chief comic relief, the others too have their funny moments. The desperate Mrs. Manningham is a riot when Rough offers her stiff upper lip medicine in the form of some good Irish whiskey. Her wicked spouse amusingly preens in front of the mirror. Even Elizabeth (an excellent secondary performace by Patricia O'Connell), the sober-faced housekeeper gets in a wry wink late in the play when she knows that her master's days of lording it over her and her mistress are drawing to a close.

Despite its creaky melodramatics and predictability, the play has a surprisingly relevant flavor. The subject of psychological abuse remains a troublingly fascinating subject. With a little forensic training the character of Rough, the policeman unwilling to let go of an unsolved crime, could easily fit into the popular Cold Case series. And so, call it Angel Street or Gaslight, Hamilton's hybrid of whodunnit, psychological thriller and comedy, continues to offer two hours of enjoyable escape entertainment. No wonder it's still being dusted off and spruced up by savvy companies like London's Old Vic (which owns the rights and is reviving it next month) and the Irish Rep.

Rope a rare revival of Hamilton's first play
Angel Street a 1999 Pearl Theatre production.
By Patrick Hamilton
Directed by Charlotte Moore

Cast: Brian Murray, Laura Odeh, David Staller, Laoisa Sexton, and Patricia O'Connell.
Sets: James Morgan
Costumes: Martha Hally
Lights: Brian Nason
Sound: Zachary Williamson
Wig and hair design: Robert-Charles Vallance
Props and Decor Design: Deidre Brennan
Fight Director: Rick Sordelet
Running Time: 2 hours plus 15-minute intermission
Irish Repertory theatre, 132 West 22nd Street, (212) 727-2737
From 5/09/07 to 7/08/07; opening 5/17/07
Tuesday to Saturday at 8 PM. Matinees are Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday at 3
Tickets: $60, $55
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer May 16th matinee
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