Albert Ahronheim’s pre-curtain music for A Contemporary Theatre’s production of John Pielmeier’s “Voices in the Dark” sounds like a cross between the scores for “Psycho” and “Jaws,” overlaid by a telephone switchboard gone haywire. From its first “screech, thud, thud, brrrinnggg” it promises thrills and chills aplenty. And for the next two hours and twenty minutes, apart from a false note here and there, the show delivers.
“Voices in the Dark” has all the ingredients for a classic thriller: a lone woman, a secluded cabin, a freak storm, a psychotic stalker. But it updates the genre with a ’90s heroine: a radio psychologist (Jacqueline Knapp) who specializes in two-minute on-air therapy sessions with phone wackos and weirdos.
As the play opens, we see the psychologist, Lil, fielding questions from her listeners. The first caller is a distraught woman whose father is abusing her daughter. The second is a man who confesses to being a serial killer. His electronically scrambled voice ominously rasps, “Only you can help me, Lil,” and then the line goes dead.
The voice calls back again all too soon, on the phone at a country cabin that Lil has rented for a week’s vacation. True to the genre, Lil promptly finds herself snowed in, with only the voice for company. Predictably, its owner soon starts threatening to make an appearance.
From there, the plot involves an assortment of small-town characters (Eddie Levi Lee as the cabin’s caretaker, James Marsters as his dimwitted assistant and Michael MacRae as the local police detective), and contains enough plunges and reversals to keep the audience gasping and laughing by turns.
There’s some great stuff here. One surprise attack on Lil earns a full-throated scream from the audience, recalling classic murderous lunges from such thrillers as “Wait Until Dark.” And the final plot twist is hidden from the audience by masterfully directed sleight of hand.
Still, the script could use some fine-tuning. At the beginning, we’re subjected to a fair amount of clunky exposition and setup. By the end of the first cabin scene, we know exactly which objects in the room will figure prominently in the play’s denouement.
What’s worse, Pielmeier goes overboard in his attempt to make every character a possible suspect. Poor Lil encounters no fewer than three (and possibly four) pathological misogynists in one 24-hour period — a bit of a stretch, even for a therapist. When the real killer is revealed, it’s not so much a surprise as that all the other creeps didn’t.
Pielmeier, who hasn’t had a major hit since the 1982 Broadway run of “Agnes of God,” gets all the support he can ask for from A Contemporary Theatre’s cast and crew. Set designer Kent Dorsey comes through with a totally wacky weekend getaway, complete with stuffed buck heads and a strategically placed hot tub. And lighting and sound designers Rick Paulsen and Steven M. Klein score with creepy atmospherics.
Examined under the cold light of day, “Voices in the Dark” is not without flaws. But watching it unfold in the darkened theater, I, for one, was too plain scared to care.