Madness reigns in "Angel Street," a play about a devilish eccentric who returns to the scene of a crime he committed 20 years earlier, still hoping to find a treasure that eluded him the first time around.
The American stage version of Patrick Hamilton's "Gaslight," now showing at the Little Theatre of Alexandria, has a topflight crew of actors, even if the some of the characters they play are outdated.
Chief among madmen is Jack Manningham, a Victorian dandy who slashed the throat of his elderly cousin Alice Barlow in 1860 and ransacked her house, looking for rubies. When the search ended in frustration, he went abroad and changed his identity, taking with him only an old trinket.
When he returns to resume the search, he marries timid Bella-- a woman who should own stock in a smelling salts factory -- as a cover for his activities and later tries to drive her mad when he thinks she may know too much.
Bella whines, faints, worries and weeps in ways that were meant to tug at the audience's collective heartstrings in 1838, when the play first opened in London. In the 1980s, however, she seems barely worth saving.
Still, help is on the way, first from housekeeper Elizabeth, with a splendid Cockney accent and a backbone to buck up her mistress, and next from chubby and courageous Inspector Rough, the play's comic relief.
The inspector, who has been chasing the Barlow rubies for 20 years, suspects that Manningham is the long-lost murderer and solicits Bella's help in proving it.
Of course, the inspector is correct. And by the end of the second act, when he has uncovered enough evidence in the old trinket to prove Manningham is a murderer who is trying to drive his wife mad, Bella is willing to switch loyalties. The inspector leaves to fetch Scotland Yard, and Bella is left alone to await the return of her murderous husband.
It all comes together in the third act, which includes enough sex (naked shoulders, no less) and violence to give it a PG rating.
The actors, meanwhile, rate between an A+ and A-.
Manningham (Lawrence Lerer) is not exactly the demonic maniac the role calls for but he is truly creepy. Give him an A-.
Bella Mary McGowan) snivels in character throughout the show. Give her a solid A.
The character of the inspector (Donald Neal) is such a welcome relief that any actor playing him would have to do something catastrophic to get less than an A. Fortunately, Neal plays his part with zest, for an A+. The same goes for the housekeeper (Mary Agnes Connell), who makes a character now uncommon in most American homes seem very real to the audience.
The Little Theatre has other talents as well. One is set designer Ted Waring, who snatched several pieces of gorgeous Victorian furniture for his set and built a complex, multi-level pink parlor, including a lovely curving staircase.
Another asset is money. LTA has built up a solid subscription base, so items beyond the reach of many theater groups -- like a curtain or a theater itself -- are easily absorbed by this well-established group.
Patrick Hamilton's "Angel Street," directed by George Bistis for the Little Theatre of Alexandria, 600 Wolfe St., Alexandria, Sept. 17-Oct. 3, with performances Thursday through Saturday at 8:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets are $5 weekends and $4 Thursday and Sunday. For more information, call 683-0496.