John Pielmeier’s new thriller “Voices in the Dark,” winner of the Mystery Writers of America’s 1999 Edgar Award, has previously been produced in Seattle and New Brunswick, N.J., but the new, Broadway-bound production, as seen during a brief Stamford tryout, is still in need of remedial attention. Play does provide a handful of satisfyingly scary jolts, but it goes overboard as it reaches its climax. Indeed, the “shocking” ending produced a roar of laughter from the audience at the performance reviewed, and the gufaws weren’t cathartic.
A major problem is the unsympathetic central character, Doctor Lil, a “popular radio talkshow psychologist” who is stalked by a psychopath. As written by Pielmeier and played too coarsely by Judith Ivey, Doctor Lil is a woman we care little about, and her perils appear to be of her own making.
The bulk of the play takes place in Lil’s husband’s getaway cabin in the Adirondacks. She arrives there during a snowstorm, which intensifies during the play, accompanied by campy Hack (Peter Bartlett) and retarded Owen (Raphael Sbarge).
But Pielmeier fails to properly introduce these and many other characters. Is Owen Lil’s son or Hack’s? We eventually figure out that Hack is Lil’s manager, agent or producer, but since he doesn’t reappear, it doesn’t much matter.
Some obfuscation is essential in any thriller, but Pielmeier is often careless in his writing, and he relies far too heavily on the telephone throughout the play.
The opening radio-studio scene should be cut entirely. It’s certainly too long, even as it introduces the sad, sorry folk who call Lil for help. Naturally , most of them are sexual misfits, as indeed are most of the characters in the play, including Lil.
“Voices in the Dark” is nothing if not sex-obsessed, and cheaply so at times. (Lil, all alone and in dire danger in the snowed-in cabin, even resorts to watching one of her husband’s porno videos.)
When the actual mayhem begins, things quickly get out of hand. The lights go out, of course, and Lil fights for her life upstairs, downstairs and all over David Gallo and Lauren Helpern’s elaborately realistic cabin set. It becomes more and more unbelievable as Lil’s would-be killer doffs his shirt and makes it obvious that he’s much stronger than she is — no wonder the audience laughs.
Under the circumstances, most of the performances are adequate. Zach Grenier gives the production a boost when he appears in act two as a local detective come to check up on Lil. But then his character gets so belligerent that the play begins to falter again. Sbarge works hard and well, too.
Robert Waldman has supplied aptly nervous, jagged string music, and Christopher Ashley’s staging and B. H. Barry’s highly physical fighting-for-life scenes are mostly adept under less-than-believable circumstances. But there are silly lapses — characters are constantly coming out of the snowstorm with no snow on them, and when Lil goes out in the storm to a blind date at a local bar, she wears a see-through outfit more fit for an August heatwave.
As of now, “Voices in the Dark” doesn’t come close to being another “Deathtrap,” and it has only a short time to be salvaged before its announced Broadway opening Aug. 12.
The Great White Way hasn’t had a new thriller in some years, but as it stands , “Voices in the Dark” isn’t the show for which auds have been waiting.