"The Woman in Black," a ghostly English tale that opened at the Olney Theatre last week, takes longer to get going than an old car on a cold morning. There are a few thrills once it sputters to life, but they are of the shriek-in-the-dark variety that barely lifts a single hair off the back of your neck.
The conceit of this spookster is that it is played by only two actors and a trunkful of sound effects. One Arthur Kipps (Tony Rizzoli) has a terrible tale to tell, and as a sort of exorcism, he hires an actor (Leland Orser) to reenact his story. The actor plays Kipps and Kipps plays the other parts, with the exception of a sylphlike ghost who wafts in and out, scaring the stuffing out of both of them.
The first act wastes entirely too much time setting up the scene, and the scene within the scene, and the actors within the actors. Add to this general lumbering around a dark and gloomy set and dim lights, and it's tough slogging for Rizzoli and Orser, who seem to work harder as the task of keeping the audience awake becomes more difficult.
Once the story gets into gear, when the actor playing Kipps gets to the isolated town where he must attend the funeral of an aged client of his law firm and then see to her will, there is enough intrigue to keep one's interest. But there is a nagging question, especially once the full range of sound effects starts clip-clopping and creaking away: Why isn't this a radio play?
The story itself is pretty grisly and might have been more so if the author didn't keep interrupting himself to remind us this is a performance by the hired actor and the central character he is playing. The young Kipps finds himself in the wreckage of several lives and ends up under the curse of the mysterious dead sister who had an illegitimate child. Whenever she appears, tragedy follows, and his entire life is blighted by her pernicious spirit.
A trimmer version of this voodoo-it might stop more hearts. Playwright Stephen Mallatratt based the play on a book by Susan Hill, and it has been playing for a year in London. Maybe it lost something in the translation.
The Woman in Black, by Stephen Mallatratt, based on the book by Susan Hill. Directed by Bill Graham Jr.; set, James Kronzer; costumes, Catherine Adair; lights, Daniel Maclean Wagner; sound, Rod Mead for Farrahs. With Tony Rizzoli, Leland Orser and Kathryn Kelley or Bernadette Flager. At the Olney Theatre through Oct. 21.