Monday, May 21, 2007

Gaslight - May 19 , 2007

Gaslight, or Angel Street, its alternate title, was written by Patrick Hamilton in 1938 yet its illustration of manipulation is as relevant today as it ever was, and seems all the more insightful for its age. It's a fine play, made into an even more compelling movie because suspense can be so much more impactful onscreen with the use of cut-aways and music. As a stage production, Gaslight still has impact and the production currently up at the Irish Rep has much to recommend it.

Odds are good that everyone is familiar with the story, but here's a quickie overview: bad man tries (successfully) to make rich young wife think she's losing her marbles while he attempts to find rare jewels in their home that were undiscovered during a murder/break-in that took place more than a decade before in the same house.

As the 'bad man' David Staller plays Jack Manningham with the absolute confidence of a seasoned sociopath. There are times when actors become self conscious playing 'evil' characters and want to round out with something that touches their humanity. But not Staller and I say BRAVO! We want to hate the villain and he opens the door and invites us in to hate him HARD! He taps into something best described as a Vincent Price vibe, all gentlemanly sophistication wrapped around Charles Manson.

His confused young bride of "five years and a little" Bella (Laura Odeh) is a study in contradictions. One moment she is happy as a lark, the next distraught that she may be losing her mind - the fact that she holds onto a thread of disbelief in her impending madness shows through every now and again and we want to shake her and say "yes! wake up, this guy is bullshitting you into the nuthouse!" She's trapped in a web of subtle brainwashing yet deep down there is a core of strength that has not been bullied by her husband and Odeh shows us that and we root for her. It would be easy to play this part as a sniveling bimbo, but Laura Odeh gives us layers, showing sparks of independence and self-confidence that blossom in the end and are ultimately very satisfying.

A happy accident of the Manningham's maid, Nancy (Laoisa Sexton) dating the servant of a retired police detective who had been in charge of the unsolved murder/break-in is Bella's salvation. The detective, Rough (Brian Murray) is the life preserver she needs to save herself from losing her mind. Murray's Rough is witty, calm and self-possessed; at first his relaxed delivery had me concerned that he was going up on lines. How stupid of me! Rough is a man who instinctively knows that he's on the right track, and he sees no reason to be brusque or panicked when he explains the situation to Bella. He is a port in the storm, and Brian Murray plays him in a delightful Sherlock Holmes meets Columbo fashion that is utterly charming and reassuring, and yes, funny. When he comforts Bella with "My dear, you've had a bad time." His understatement gets an enormous audience-wide laugh of agreement.

The smaller yet significant roles of housekeeper Elizabeth (Patricia O'Connell) and maid, Nancy (Laoisa Sexton) are no less well played. You want to hug Elizabeth - especially when she is confronted by Manningham's early return home while she is hiding Rough - and slap Nancy. That hussy! Well done ladies!

The set design by James Morgan is sumptuous, extremely detailed and uses the unique layout of the Irish Rep's stage to great advantage. My only complaint is slight, and it regards Charlotte Moore's direction of the blocking. For those of us in the side section a majority of the action is played with the actor's backs towards us and while luckily theater is more about voice than visuals, it would have been nice to see a little more than was presented here. Granted, it is a challenging space, but folks on the sides are entitled to as much of the production as those in the center.

Still that is my one complaint, and as such has little bearing on this reviewer's opinion that this production of Gaslight is well worth your time.

Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22nd Street
(between 6th & 7th Avenues)
Runs through July 8th
running time: 2 hours with one 15 min intermission

all photo credits: Carol Rosegg

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