Frederick Knott had precisely one skill, but a highly developed one: Instead of whodunits or whydunits – psychological thrillers where we guess at motives – he wrote howdunits, in which we know who the killers are and wait to see how or whether they can be stopped.
Alfred Hitchcock adapted “Dial M for Murder” into a hit movie in the 1950s, and “Write Me a Murder” had a Broadway fling in 1961-62. But he’s best known for “Wait Until Dark.”
The 1966 Broadway version earned a Tony nomination for Lee Remick as a blind woman who battles three criminals in her Greenwich Village apartment, and it gave a breakthrough role to Robert Duvall as sadistic Harry Roat. (Quentin Tarantino reprised the role in the 1998 revival, still his only Broadway appearance. Well, there aren’t many psycho parts around.) The 1967 film earned Audrey Hepburn her fifth and final Oscar nomination, too.
That’s all a way of saying these can be sure-fire roles in good hands, and they work nearly half a century later at CPCC Summer Theatre.
Caroline Renfro (who did “Dial M For Murder” at CPCC) dominates the show as resourceful Susy Hendrix; she’s smart, plucky and credibly puts herself inside a sightless person’s mind. She has a kind of Batman-Robin vibe with Gloria, the 13-year-old who lives upstairs and becomes her sidekick. (K.C. Roberge uncannily impersonates someone who must be half her age.)
Yet the play’s never a simple woman-in-jeopardy story.
Roat’s anxious hirelings (Christian Casper and John Cunningham) have no idea how far to trust their deranged boss (Jerry Colbert, playing Roat as a quiet, patiently implacable creep – a good choice). These ex-cons join his search for a doll filled with heroin because they need money, but they’re not on his wavelength.
Knott expertly teases us along the way; the surprises begin literally with the entrance of the second character. The villains build up a believable story to get Suzy on their side – she thinks her absent husband may have stolen the doll and killed the rightful owner – and the play’s construction stays watertight.
Knott errs only in being inconsistent about Suzy’s acumen: I didn’t believe the woman who could recognize the sound of a visitor’s squeaky shoe couldn’t tell that more than one person had entered her room. And surely she’d have checked her supposedly locked door, instead of asking others to lock it, once she has sniffed out a conspiracy.
Director Carey Kugler mostly gets the timing right, though events don’t unfold quite as quickly as they must at the climax. Luke Cresson’s lighting design helps there: For once, darkness onstage really is dark, and the sudden appearance of a small light can be startling.
Kugler last worked with Colbert and Casper in a criminal confederacy in “Deathtrap” two years ago, and CPCC artistic director Tom Hollis says this trio is now pressuring him to reunite them in Anthony Shaffer’s “Sleuth.” On the evidence so far, he should give in.
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