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A CurtainUp Review

Voices In the Dark
By Les Gutman

John Pielmeier did not envision any lofty purpose when he wrote this play. He didn't plan to teach us anything, or give us something to think about; he does not offer us some new insight into an age-old problem. His aim is simple and straightforward: he wants to scare the hell out of us.

Does he succeed? People who try to scare us don't fancy a lot of independent thinking, and they certainly don't want us to ask a lot of questions. We are sitting in a theater. How can someone scare us? We'd better think about it.
  1. We can be "grossed out". We can see something that is disgusting.
  2. We can have our senses shocked. We can see something frightening we did not expect to see.
  3. Our minds can be played with. Without seeing anything, an expectation of terror can be visited on us.
  4. We can so identify with a character's harrowing experience that we are compelled to confront our own demons.
From these alternatives, there should be, eventually, one of two results. Either we will feel triumphant -- we stared the monster in the eyes and lived to speak of it -- or we will be scarred by it. In the first case, the play's climax will prompt a hearty laugh. In the latter case, we will go home close-mouthed and sleep with the light on.

Which means does Voices in the Dark use to achieve which end? You won't learn that here. Does it scare the audience? You're not likely to go home without having gasped a few times, but I can't imagine you'll need to call in sick the next day either.

What's good here seems to be everything but the play itself. When it succeeds, it's more likely to be because of Christopher Ashley's direction than Pielmeier's script. A spectacular set design and extraordinary lighting and special effects fulfill their obligations, and an able cast, headed by Judith Ivey, does everything asked of it splendidly. But both are largely wasted. In a year in which the scary movie genre has been turned on its head by the success of the unconventional Blair Witch Project, the conventionality of  Voices in the Dark is striking.

Lil (Judith Ivey) is the host of a popular New York radio show called "Last Resort". She specializes in pop, sound bite solutions to her caller's psychological crises. In her first call, she succeeds in getting a woman off a window-ledge and back on terra firma. Her next call, right before she leaves for a rendezvous with her husband in the Adirondacks, is from a freak: a man who has electronically altered his voice and threatens her.

She is driven to the cabin by her agent/manager, Hack (Peter Bartlett), who is trying to convince her to accept a Fox Television offer. We meet two locals, Owen (Raphael Sbarge), an oddball who seems to suffer from a host of arrested development issues, and Blue (John Ahlin, who is exceptional and deserves a better vehicle), a burly lumberjack type who has clumsy designs on Lil. After expressing a few gay banalities about being in the wilderness, Bartlett departs until the curtain call. He seems to have wandered into this show from some Paul Rudnick rehearsal for no good reason. He is a staple of Christopher Ashley's collaborations with Rudnick.

Alone, without a car and with snow falling outside, Lil had a call from her husband, Bill (Tom Stechschulte), saying his flight from DC has been canceled and he can't get up there until Monday. Some evidence of marital and past drinking problems float by as Lil's real problem manifests itself: Caller #2 not only has her number, he's stalking her. What follows is best left undescribed. Suffice it to say that unless you've religiously avoided the "thriller" genre, you won't find much here you haven't seen elsewhere before. And while Ashley and company are able to sustain some degree of tension through a part of the first act, Pielmeier is unable to maintain enough dramatic energy to get us through the play's laboring second half. Toward the end, not only do we not care what happens, we'd be willing to accept just about anything to get the curtain to come down.

In several interviews, one of this show's producers, who owns several off-Broadway theaters, explained why he brought this show to Broadway. "A thriller is like a musical, for tourists and the bridge-and-tunnel crowd....This is sheer entertainment."  Really? Now that's scary.

A final note for anyone inclined to see the show. Although much praise can be heaped on the terrific set design, it does have a major flaw. It leaves at least half of the theater's side sections with obstructed views. Beware.

by John Pielmeier 
Directed by Christopher Ashley 
starring Judith Ivey with John Ahlin, Peter Bartlett, Lenny Blackburn, Nicole Fonarow, Zach Grenier, Raphael Sbarge and Tom Stechschulte 
Set Design: David Gallo and Lauren Helpern 
Lighting Design: Donald Holder 
Costume Design: David C. Woolard 
Sound Design: T. Richard Fitzgerald 
Original Music by Robert Waldman 
Fight Staging: B.H. Barry
Special Effects by Gregory Meeh 
Longacre Theatre, 220 West 48th Street (Broadway/8th Av.) (212) 239-6200 
opened August 12 open run 
Time: 2 hours with one intermission 
Seen August 10, 1999 and reviewed by Les Gutman August 13, 1999

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