Suspense and surprise are the major tools of the mystery writer’s trade, and playwright and screenplay and television writer Frederick Knott learned his craft well, if economically.
Actually, in a long career of writing television scripts, he had two major achievements in writing for the stage, both of them mystery thrillers: “Dial M for Murder” and “Wait until Dark.” Both spin their wheels in the first act, setting up complicated—and in the case of “Wait Until Dark,” fairly unbelievable—plots that climax, in the plays’ closing 10 minutes, in some slambang effects designed to scare the hell out of both the characters onstage and in the audience.
They do this very well indeed, in the current, well acted and realized production in Quogue of “Wait until Dark” by the Hampton Theatre Company. True, the climax isn’t that much of a surprise, but as acted and directed in this production that knows what it’s doing every second of its running time, it’s satisfyingly spooky and gripping.
The plot revolves around three gangsters’ frantic search for a heroin stuffed doll unwittingly carried into the U.S. from Canada by Sam Hendrix, a freelance photographer whose new assignment, courtesy of some machinations by the gangsters, keeps him conveniently absent throughout most of the play.
This leaves his young, bright and blind wife Susy to bear the brunt of the gangsters’ search. But Susy, for all her handicap, is endlessly resourceful, and her fight for survival, pitted against the gangsters’ attempts to eliminate her in a horrible and painful way, forms the central conflict of the play.
Of course, Susy’s blindness gives her the advantage of being able to function in total darkness, and that’s the way the closing moments of the play are played.
Director Bob Kaplan keeps the action sizzling, and his ensemble of excellent actors keeps the tension high and the forward motion constant. Peter Marbury’s cluttered depiction of a Greenwich Village basement apartment is both realistic and scary. Sebastian Paczynski’s moody and constantly changing lighting design is a character by itself. And, as usual, Teresa Lebrun’s costumes are perfect.
As police officers, James Macaluso and Billy Paterson make the most of their minute and 15 seconds on stage. Sean Marbury, as Susy’s husband Sam, utilizes well his slightly longer moments on stage, including in a mysteriously romantic coda added by the director.
Edward Kassar, as the most human of the trio, has some nice moments with Susy, and Robert Sean Miller, as the crooked police sergeant Carlino, is particularly effective as a greed-motivated idiot.
Westhampton Beach Middle School student Bailey Mockler, age 12, shoulders the major role of Gloria, an upstairs youngster who does errands for Susy and obviously doesn’t care much for her job, with intelligence and timing.
The ringleader of the gang of three is Harry Roat Jr., played with delicious skill by Phil Eberhardt. A cool customer, fazed by nothing in the play’s opening act, he becomes far more menacing and terrifying in the play’s wild and scary closing scene. Mr. Eberhardt balances his contrasting selves well and believably, and plays perfectly off Jessica Ellwood, as Susy. Their scenes together are truly fiery.
The true star of “Wait until Dark” is the blind Susy, and Ms. Ellwood has had a sizeable relationship with the role. This critic well remembers her debut in the role in a North Fork Community Theater production, also directed by Mr. Kaplan. She was impressive then; she’s stunning in the same role now in Quogue.
Working within the levels of the interior of the character of Susy, she manages to convey an entire symphony of emotions and motivations. It’s a performance that can justifiably be described as awesome. Ms. Ellwood, over the years since she first debuted locally in the role, has grown and deepened as an actress, and this is her finest performance yet.
There won’t be much to occupy your mind at “Wait Until Dark,” but that’s as it should be in a murder mystery that seeks only visceral effect. There’s plenty of this in this well executed production of a 47-year-old chestnut that still retains its flavor.
“Wait Until Dark” continues on Thursday through Saturday nights at 8 and Sunday afternoons at 2:30 through February 1. For ticket information, call the box office at 653-8955, or visit www.hamptontheatre.org.