There’s no onstage rainstorm, and no Victorian dollhouse tipping back and forth like a Disneyland attraction, spewing china toward the footlights, but the Matrix Theatre Company’s production of J.B. Priestley’s “Dangerous Corner” is lively entertainment nonetheless. With Priestley’s “An Inspector Calls” — and the aforementioned special effects — proving a surprise smash in London and on Broadway, this is a canny choice for one of L.A.’s premier small companies, though it shows its age more than “Inspector” did.
A 1932 mystery melodrama that hews more closely to the traditions of those genres than the 1946 “Inspector,” which had a thicker overlay of social import, “Dangerous Corner” concerns the death of a principal in a publishing house, Martin Chatfield, and the reverberations from his apparent suicide among his family and business associates a year later.
Assembled after dinner on the patio of a cozy country home, handsomely created by Deborah Raymond and Dorian Vernacchio, are Robert Chatfield (Granville Van Dusen), Martin’s brother and the head of the firm; his wife Freda (Claudette Nevins); her brother Gordon (Raphael Sbarge), also in the firm; and his glamorous, flighty wife Betty (Anna Gunn); the firm’s other partner, Charles Stanton (Lawrence Pressman); and Olwen Peel (Marilyn McIntyre), loyal secretary at the company.
The play’s mustiness comes through early, in the characterization of the late Martin: After hearing him described as “handsome, charming and so amusing,” no prizes for guessing what Martin’s big secret was. But in fact everyone onstage has a secret relating to Martin’s untimely death, which took place just as a scandal involving money stolen from the firm threatened to unfold.
And as the evening progresses, one by one these genteel folk are forced to confront the harsh, sordid truths beneath the illusions they live by — rather as in “Inspector Calls,” truth be told. The play’s title is taken from a line of dialogue likening truth-telling to speeding around a perilous curve.
It’s all rather formulaic: Each character gets his or her moment of mortification as a secret is revealed, and someone is forever saying “Yes, it’s true!” with varying degrees of defiance or shame. If the Matrix cast under Andrew J. Robinson’s pacy direction can’t quite make it seem fresh, they certainly make this theatrically conventional play sparkle with wit and suffused emotion.
Itzin’s Gordon is full of sly, wry cynicism. “Isn’t it terrible?” he deadpans sarcastically when his guilt is discovered. He plays best against the conventions of the material. McIntyre’s deliciously named Olwen Peel is mousiness incarnate, with a permanent look of wounded pride.
As the self-satisfied Freda, Nevins has an air of regality being quietly shaken to its roots, and Gunn comes through in the second act with some shiny steel beneath the gloss of the glamorous figure she cuts in the first. Van Dusen has perhaps the hardest part — he gets the somewhat overblown monologue about the horror of living life without illusions (shades of an O’Neill pretender appear) — and he alone plays too much to the material’s hoarier tendencies, eyes constantly abulge with shock and consternation. (The Matrix double-casts its productions, so each performance will find a different collection of actors.)
With only the occasional hootable line (Olwen shudders at the recollection of Martin showing her “those beastly, foul drawings of a mad, Belgian artist…”), “Dangerous Corner” still provides the kind of theatrical flair that audiences once took for granted, and in the Matrix company’s capable hands, it’s an old-fashioned pleasure.