In his 1967 review of the Audrey Hepburn movie, “Wait Until Dark,” legendary film critic Roger Ebert wrote that the classic thriller, about a blind woman being terrorized by three conmen, depends on what he coined “an idiot plot.” Ebert summarized it as “one or more characters being idiots. They get trapped in a situation that they could easily get out of with common sense. But they don’t, being idiots. If they did, they’d solve the problem and the movie would be over.”
When Jeffrey Hatcher was commissioned by Geffen Playhouse to update the Frederick Knott play Wait Until Dark, he set the scene in the 1940s rather than the 1960s and smoothed over some previously clunky dialogue. But he didn’t address many of the plot holes, and didn’t help the play’s uneven structure, which needs very firm direction to establish, and then consistently build, the tension that great thrillers demand.
So the audience has to suspend its disbelief more than usual to enjoy Madison Theatre Guild’s updated stage version of Wait Until Dark, playing in the Bartell Theatre on the Evjue Stage through November 18. We also need to literally wait until the drama’s violent finale, performed in near darkness, for this drama to really engage us.
As Suzy, the recently married woman who was blinded in a car accident less than two years prior, Erin S. Baal is the most interesting thing in this production. Baal is utterly convincing as newly sightless, having learned how to successfully navigate many parts of her day-to-day life, but unable to depend on her other senses completely to compensate for her eyes. She’s memorized the set-up of the apartment, but can’t tell exactly where smoke emanates from an ashtray, for example. She recognizes distinct footsteps, but can’t find a pencil that’s fallen on the floor, based on where she heard it land.
Baal also clearly communicates the character’s emotional uncertainty in her new life. Stripped of her confidence, Baal displays confusion and doubt about her relationship with her husband, on her transparently vulnerable face. And her “a-ha moment” when she finally puts the pieces of the scam together, is striking. Her transformation from powerless to powerful is an arc that’s much more interesting than the elaborate scheme that a trio of criminals has worked out to trick her into handing over a precious doll.
As an ex-con who’s duped into working the scam, Joe Molloy looks and sounds like he just walked off the set of a ’40s gangster movie. His character’s half-hearted attempt to do the job and flee the psychotic criminal mastermind (a menacing Jason Compton) is endearing. Molloy also presents a believable middle ground between Mike, a the boy scout/war hero gone wrong played by Edric Johnson, and Compton’s evil Bond villain who’ll stop at nothing to get what he wants.
Though the production elements are certainly secondary to this story of con-artist schemes and relentless double crossing, both the set and costume design are remarkably sloppy. The piece is set deliberately in 1944, but it’s impossible to tell that from the generic clothing most of the cast is wearing (Molloy being the major exception). And a push-button light switch, period radio, and old fridge aren’t enough to create the feeling of the World War II era in the apartment. In addition, in a play that’s all about who can see what, a disturbing number of light cues were flubbed on opening night.
But the most theatrical moment of the show is worth waiting for—when the bad guys and the audience are plunged into darkness, and Baal’s character Suzy finally has the upper hand. (Kudos to Whitney Derendinger for designing a compelling fight scene that is largely heard rather than seen.) For a moment you’ll forget to ask “idiot” questions like, wasn’t that door locked a second ago?