Something similar happens when I see repeat performances during the same company's run--the second viewing can either overwhelm or underwhelm me based on the first. But then I wonder as much about my own frame of mind as about the actors' and audiences' moods on different nights. When an entirely different set of translators sets out to enliven (or not) the playwright's words on another stage, I can pontificate on the mysterious biology of theater, the way artistic organisms with similar genetic makeups will nonetheless evolve into creatures divergently successful behind the footlights.
You simply can't ignore a combination of two of the city's best actors--casually controlled veteran Terry Martin, artistic director of Addison's WaterTower Theatre, and Nye Cooper, a risk-taking young pup with a precocious ingenuity for multiple characterizations in the same show--when the occasion gets in your face. You also can't forget when the two-man play they're starring in, The Woman in Black, received a vastly superior area premiere about eight months ago in Fort Worth.
Circle Theatre outfitted Stephen Mallatratt's stage adaptation of English novelist Susan Hill's Gothic chiller about a family curse with two also fine performers--Ashley Wood (currently excelling in Theatre Three's I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change!) and John Wayne Shafer (right now toiling in small New York theaters). Their basement space is more cramped and inflexible, not well suited to the technical demands that this haunted memory play requires. Yet gasps were pulled regularly from the throats of ticketbuyers as the story of a paranoid lawyer and a skeptical actor rehearsing the lawyer's autobiographical script unfolded--and, it should be noted, I had to clear permission with the actors to review a preview performance, as they were sensitive about their timing with light, smoke, and sound effects. Both triumphed under adverse conditions.
Unfortunately, the opening night of Plano Repertory Theatre's version was conspicuously less tuned in to the material's cumulative creepiness. Different in age but compatible in their dark hair and deep-set eyes, Martin and Cooper are visually harmonious in a production that has two simultaneous story lines: the tale of the lawyer attempting to hone his amateur acting skills under the tutelage of the actor, and the performance the characters deliver as the lawyer recounts how he unraveled the violent mystery behind the estate of a recently deceased old recluse. It's not that Martin and Cooper have trouble traveling between these theatrical landscapes. It's that they barely seem to be on the same planet when sharing a scene. Terry Martin might have been manufactured from a petri dish for this sort of brooding, fearful-eyed role, and he indeed suits it fine, but seems oddly to have hunkered down in the character's quiet despair and resisted connecting to Cooper. His young co-star, meanwhile, gallops fiercely but at times unthinkingly through the dialogue. The actor is supposed to be callow, and Nye Cooper has the stage chops to successfully convey the emotional color of a passage even at this clip, but in speeding along so he sacrifices a good deal of the production's impact, which relies on allowing the audience to savor the setup, the slowly gathering detail, of every new scene. When ticketbuyers have been successfully apprised of the rainy graveyard or the locked room full of children's toys, the unexpected appearances that follow constitute ghostly manifestations in their imaginations.
Even the grab-your-lapels effect that had audiences yelling in Fort Worth has been blunted here, so I'll lay a good deal of the blame at the feet of director Mark Fleischer. Confident of his two performers' talents, he seems to have allowed them to shine in whatever direction they wanted and neglected channeling them to places that would illuminate the play's black heart. If a director is one kind of medium in the theater, guiding the actors to access the different personalities in their own souls, then Plano Repertory Theatre's latest séance is full of a lot of chain-rattling but not many compelling messages from the beyond.