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A CurtainUp Review

Wait Until Dark
By Les Gutman

There's really only one justification for Frederick Knott's Wait Until Dark, and it's a fairly simple one: to scare the living daylights out of every man, woman and child who witnesses it. And there's really only one thing wrong with this revival of it: Quentin Tarantino can't scare a deer out of a pair of oncoming headlights. Without a sense of terror, the fact that most of the other elements of the production are first rate doesn't mean all that much.

Knott's play was a Broadway hit in 1966 starring Robert Duvall and Lee Remick. Perhaps more memorably, it was a popular film with Alan Arkin and Audrey Hepburn in the leads. Like most thrillers, it depends on its "scare factor" to divert the audience from asking too many questions about its substance.

The story, or as much of it as I feel comfortable revealing, involves a drug-filled doll that has found its way into the life, and eventually the apartment, of Susy Hendrix (Marisa Tomei). Susy is blind, and has nothing to do with drug smuggling. The people who do -- and who of course want the doll -- are the nefarious Harry Roat (Tarantino) and his accomplices, Talman (Stephen Lang) and Carlino (Juan Carlos Hernandez). They cook up a scheme to get the doll. When it doesn't quite pan out, and when Susy conjures up a few tricks of her own (her blindness becoming as much of a tool as a disability), Knott's carefully calculated roller coaster of a play is set to shift into high gear. It should have been one helluva ride. (For the record, perhaps I should note that I am new to the story, having seen neither the play nor the film, and thus am fully available for any shock or surprise the play might offer.)

< Leonard Foglia's direction, especially as aided by Brian MacDevitt's dramatic lighting and Darron L. West's often-haunting sound effects, does its best to set the tone and accentuate the hairpin turns that the playwright thrusts at the audience. Foglia also mines the script for its humor, effectively utilizing it to create a sort of nervous energy that is emphasized by sparks of raw electicity that separate the scenes of this one and one-third hour intermissionless staging. It's the kind of humor that provokes edgy laughter -- the kind you use to reassure yourself everything is OK even when it's not, and it's perfect for unsettling an otherwise comfortably situated audience. With Michael McGarty's ultra-realistic recreation of an East Village basement apartment and David C. Woolard's costumes, it's hard to imagine what more could have been expected of the creative team than was delivered here. This production is indeed all dressed up with no place to go.

All is for naught because the protagonist fails to convey even the most minimal degree of unmitigated fear. Tarantino perversely robs Harry Roat of all of his uncompassed madness: precisely what's needed to provoke squirming, white-knuckled fright. His Harry veers from calculating at best to bumbling and indifferent at worst. Where is the menace so memorably created by Samuel L. Jackson in the "shakedown" scene in Pulp Fiction? Where is the recklessness of the violence that gave Reservoir Dogs its sharpness? Tarantino's performance has to be hugely disappointing to anyone expecting even a remote approximation of the sensibilities displayed in the films he has written and directed.

The fallout from Tarantino's anemic performance severely affects the remainder of the cast as well. Marisa Tomei struggles to define Susy with a combination of vulnerability and spunk. But instead of being threatened by Rout and rising to the occasion, she seems to have been invigorated by him from the outset. The result -- a skilled and studied performance notwithstanding -- is more akin to Sigourney Weaver in the Alien movies than to any character Audrey Hepburn is likely ever to have portrayed. In reaction to Tarantino's Harry, a frightened, tentative Susy would have been absurd.

The same can be said for Stephen Lang, another accomplished actor who seems to be checking his performance to avoid overrunning the star. Talman is a complex character; he is gangster tough but must impersonate an old friend of Susy's husband with enough integrity to gain her confidence. Here, however, he is never called upon to be as unflinchingly tough as he could be, and Susy hardly feels the needs for his strength in fending off this Harry. They both have precious little to react to.

Chalk this up as a lost chance to revive old anxieties.
by Frederick Knott 
Directed by Leonard Foglia 
starring Marisa Tomei and Quentin Tarantino 
with Stephen Lang, Juan Carlos Hernandez, Imani Parks, James Whalen, Ritchie Coster and Diana Lamar 
Set Design by Michael McGarty 
Costume Design by David C. Woolard
Lighting Design by Brian MacDevitt 
Sound Design by Darron L. West
Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th Street (212) 307-4100
Opened April 5, 1998 for 16 week limited engagement
Closing June 28, after 12 previews and 97 regular performances, two months short of its projected run.

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