By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The first words the audience hears in the Richardson Theatre Centre production of the thriller Wait Until Dark come from President Gerald R. Ford, grimly granting Richard M. Nixon a full pardon for involvement in Watergate crimes. It's a brief audio flashback to 1974, a dark period in American history, and a symbolic verbal overture for a dark play whose big moments happen on a nearly pitch-black stage.
Like Dial "M" for Murder, playwright Frederick Knott's other classic thriller, Wait Until Dark works only if it spins its audience into a spine-tingling case of the frights. RTC's version, directed by Regan Adair, has potential--actor Halim Jabbour makes a creepy-but-handsome villain in the Stanley Tucci mode--but the scare tactics didn't gel on opening night. Confused light cues spoiled some of the suspense, then an onstage door got stuck and wouldn't open at a crucial point in the action. When the knob finally unjammed and the character stepped in, everyone laughed and applauded the unintentionally comic goof. It didn't help that throughout that first performance, lead actress Elizabeth VanWinkle kept shotgunning her lines and forgetting that her character is supposed to be blind. Problems such as these keep an audience planted firmly against the back of their seats, instead of on the edge of them.
Wait Until Dark matches a blind girl just learning to cope with her disability against three veteran criminals who are unaware, at first, that she can't see. Suzy Hendrix (VanWinkle) is a Greenwich Village housewife blind as the result of a recent accident. Husband Sam (Zack Menendez), a photographer, treats her handicap as a mild inconvenience (mostly for him) and leaves her alone for long stretches in their basement apartment while he flies off to Canada on assignment or works in a studio blocks away. Suzy's part-time helper is an unreliable and sneaky 14-year-old neighbor, Gloria (Meredith Lindsey).
Somehow, through Sam's travels, Suzy comes to possess a doll that contains a hefty cache of heroin. Three drug traffickers--Harry Roat Jr. (Jabbour), Mike Talman (Bill Sebastian) and "Sergeant" Carlino (C. Todd Young)--track the drugs to the Hendrix apartment. But instead of just doing a quick and logical smash-and-grab to snatch the stash from the nearly helpless Suzy, the thugs work up a bizarre con game. Talman pretends to be a longtime friend of Sam's, dropping by for a visit on a pass through New York City. His mild manner and soothing voice help him gain Suzy's trust. Roat, as father and son characters, convinces Suzy that her absent husband has had an affair with a woman whose corpse has turned up near the apartment. Carlino pretends to be a police sergeant investigating the case and watching the place for Sam's return.
The point of the elaborate scheme is to turn Suzy into a blithering paranoid, willing to hand over the doll without reporting anything to the cops. But instead of withering under pressure, Suzy is empowered by it. When she finally, finally, figures out that she's been duped by the no-goods, she uses her blindness as an advantage, leaving her would-be attackers literally in the dark. The climax is a life-or-death struggle that takes place in silhouette against the pale, cold light of an open refrigerator door.
When they're not stumbling over their dialogue or the furniture, the RTC cast isn't bad. Flicking a switchblade nicknamed "Geraldine," Jabbour's Harry Roat Jr. is believably slick and sinister. With or without a hairpiece (he goes both ways in this show), Jabbour is a hottie, all manly musk with a top note of danger. He's the only actor in the ensemble who seemed fully rehearsed and at ease with lines and blocking on opening night.
The henchmen, played by Sebastian and Freeman, would be scarier without all the twitching and pacing. And how strange that Freeman's face and arms look like they've been smeared with olive oil. Young Meredith Lindsey is appropriately gawky as Gloria, but she, too, rushes lines and looks nervous about where to jump next on the bi-level set.
Maybe a few performances into the six-week run of Wait Until Dark, VanWinkle will settle into the role of Suzy and get better at playing sightless. When one of the con men tosses plates and laundry onto the floor, Suzy shouldn't delicately step over and around them. She's blind, remember?
And because of an overheard argument between confused theatergoers at RTC, here's the background trivia on Wait Until Dark. It was a Broadway hit in the mid-'60s starring Lee Remick as Suzy and Robert Duvall as Harry Roat Jr. Audrey Hepburn earned an Oscar nomination as Suzy in the 1967 film opposite Alan Arkin (not James Coburn, as one man insisted to his wife...that was Charade). The play was revived to chilly reviews on Broadway in 1998 starring Marisa Tomei and Quentin Tarantino.