'Night' Cloaks Its Intrigue Too Well
By Nelson Pressley< br>Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 9, 2009
"The Mousetrap" was unexpected catnip in the Olney Theatre Center's season last year, a hardy old mystery with a savvy cast larking about in deliciously suspicious style.
"Night Must Fall," the company's latest offering, is in that mold, and while the play may be more ambitious than Agatha Christie's warhorse, it's not as crafty. Emlyn Williams's 1935 melodrama lacks the snap of a true whodunit, instead plowing through the heavy emotional seas of character study as evil lurks. The play has all the usual thriller ingredients -- isolated English country house, a gallery of people at odds, and a corpse discovered: killer on the loose! But any menace or psychological intrigue lurking in the script is kept rather quietly under wraps.
Give John Going's cast a certain amount of credit: They give this vintage material an earnest professional spin, keeping you curious about back stories and intentions at least through the first act. Rosemary Prinz is splendidly prickly as Mrs. Bramson, the wheelchair-bound biddy who browbeats staff and family alike -- family in this case being Olivia Grayne, the pensive niece who has come to live with her (and work as the dowager's secretary).
Olivia, played with a tricky combination of spark and repression by Julie-Ann Elliott, turns out to be the most mysterious figure in the show. She's a catch, and marriageable, but she resists the steady proposals of Hubert Laurie (Carl Randolph). He's too much of a straight arrow (and borderline ninny) for her to accept, but it's Olivia's cryptic remarks about night, and her sudden middle-distance gazes, that get you wondering about this cool customer's darker attractions.
Still, the play's vaguely creepy mood is played too seriously, or not seriously enough -- you can't tell, even watching Tim Getman's jolly yet vaguely malevolent turn as Dan, a strapping young rogue who has sullied the virtue of Mrs. Bramson's maid. Guilt notwithstanding, this ruffian charms the flinty old lady so well that he actually gets hired. But though Getman pours on the charisma, he may be too dangerous in the part; this tall, lively actor's frankly sinister performance drains the guesswork out of the plot.
Then again, Williams doesn't seem terribly interested in teasing out a classic mystery. His question seems to be different: When evil comes sniffing around, is it possible that we're prepared to indulge it? For some people, isn't that better than being bored?
This may be a mischievous notion, but this staging never evokes the whiff of danger. Even physically, it's stuck in place (especially contrasted with "The Mousetrap," which featured clever comings and goings through a busy inn), so without much guesswork or movement, a serious torpor takes hold. The brown housebound design offers no relief, and neither does Dennis Parichy's lighting, which sometimes dims to menacingly low levels for reasons no more logical than a sudden theatrical cue. (Lights must fall.)
The piece has a pretty strong history: It was revived in New York 10 years ago with Matthew Broderick, and the great movie critic Pauline Kael called the 1937 film "stage-bound but very scary." This version makes that sound half right.
Night Must Fall by Emlyn Williams. Directed by John Going. Scenic design, James Wolk; costumes, Liz Covey; sound design, Jarett Pisani. With Kathleen Akerley, Anne Stone, Briel Banks and Paul Morella. About two hours.