ANGEL STREET, by Patrick Hamilton, Directed by Hugh Lester; set design by Edward Crow; costumes by Debra Leonard; Lighting by Hugh Lester. With Anne Stone, James Michael, Kristine Nielsen, Patricia Dickey, Jim Tibbetts, John Gilliss and Tait Ruppert. At the Trapier Theater through Aug. 26.
Between Patrick Hamilton's "Angel Street," which opened last night at the Trapier Theater, and Ira Levin's "Deathtrap," currently at the Eisenhower, lie 40 years in the evolution of the modern suspense play.
Much has happened in the meantime - a few millenniums' worth of natural selection. were considerably smoothed over in the splendid 1944 movie "Gaslight," with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, but the original stage version remains a museum piece of stodgy plotting. Mrs. Manningham, the nervous young wife, is so astonishingly submissive and slow on the uptake that she seems not insane - as her homicidal husband wants her to think - but perhaps a touch retarded.
She knows, for instance, that her husband is bashing about in the mysterious, off-limits third floor of their London townhouse every evening (when he pretends to be at his club). But even after ex-inspector Rough of Scotland Yard has spent half an act reciting the history of a certain dastardly murder committed 15 years ago in a certain London townhouse, where, to this day, a certain priceless set of rubies is thought to be secreted on the third floor, Mrs. Manningham has no idea what it all could have to do with her or her husband.
A play this creaky must have an equally creaky production, of course, and that's just what director Hugh Lester and the Shakespeare & Co. players have given it. If the playwright was determined to note every entrance with a line of dialogue like "Come in, come into the room" - and he was - these actors are no less determined to give each such line 100 percent of their time and attention.
Some theatregoers undoubtedly will find this painstaking style rather trying. Others will find it nicely old-fashioned and authentic - as well as trying.
But underneath all the prehistoric theatrical bric-a-brac, if you can get into the spirit of the proceedings, the original appeal of this much-imitated melodrama is still there.
Last night's audience was scarcely huddled in terror as "Angel Street" approached its denouement, but they weren't quite asleep either.
For that, Anne Stone's intense and earnest performance as Mrs. Manningham deserves a preponderant share of the credit. And the rest should go to Kristine Nielsen and Jim Tibbetts for pumping new comic life into their old and battered rules as the saucy parlormaid and the methodical Scotland Yard man.
As the villainous husband, however, James Michael is as flat as yesterday's soda. With all due allowance for the tendency of murderers to be soft-spoken fellows in their non-murdering moments, Michael's blandness strains credulity. An accomplished (and now retired) teacher of drama at Kenyon College, Michael has, according to the program note, "returned to his first love, acting."
This particular performance suggests that the first love may not always be the best. CAPTION: Picture, Kristine Nielsen and James Michael in "Angel Street."