After the recent Broadway failures of "Voices in the Dark" and "Wait Until Dark," audiences might consider the thriller genre as dead as the corpses populating "Scream 3." Along with sex comedies and courtroom dramas, yet another popular staple of the theater has been claimed by mass-media entertainment. Unless, that is, one knows how to reinvent and revitalize the form, as playwright Nancy Hasty has done with her thoroughly absorbing new experiment in terror, "The Director."

After the recent Broadway failures of “Voices in the Dark” and “Wait Until Dark,” audiences might consider the thriller genre as dead as the corpses populating “Scream 3.” Along with sex comedies and courtroom dramas, yet another popular staple of the theater has been claimed by mass-media entertainment. Unless, that is, one knows how to reinvent and revitalize the form, as playwright Nancy Hasty has done with her thoroughly absorbing new experiment in terror, “The Director.”

As she and her director, Evan Bergman, know full well, the plot turns and suspense of a good thriller depend less on the body count than the consequences of characters’ moral choices. No blood is spilled on the tiny stage of the Arclight Theater. The revelation isn’t a gruesome death, but rather how grotesquely far the human soul can be pushed in the pursuit of self-awareness and, by natural extension, the creation of one’s art.

In structure, “Director” is a series of acting exercises a legit director meticulously plans and instigates for his new company of actors. A true theater animal, he is the kind of control freak who does not believe in full disclosure at any point in the creative process.

A young playwright, Annie (Tasha Lawrence), has found this once-brilliant director, Peter (John Shea), at work as a janitor in the basement of a rehearsal hall. She saw his groundbreaking “Macbeth” years ago, and never quite recovered from the experience. Disappointed in the commercial theater, he now calls himself “the phantom of the rehearsal hall.”

But Peter agrees quickly to helm her autobiographical play. After auditioning 162 actors and picking only three, Peter begins by rehearsing scenes from Strindberg’s “Miss Julie.” He also spouts much self-absorbed nonsense about Jerzy Grotowski and Antonin Artaud, and the pragmatic playwright begins to think she’s made a mistake.

Soon, however, she is making a series of professional and romantic capitulations to Peter. The actors, too, experience the same cycle of resistance , disgust and terror before ultimately becoming willing, if not dedicated, disciples.

The pattern of education — or is it simply abuse? — repeats itself until finally they make the ultimate moral decision to end their commitment to the process. The consequences of their collective action is more chilling than a vat of fake blood spilled in a dozen slasher movies.

Shea retires his leading-man image with a vengeance, while Lawrence never fails to convince in her series of submissions to Peter’s logic, as do the actor-victims: Tanya Clarke, Warren Press, Todd Simmons and Shula Van Buren. As with any classic thriller, “Director” provides more than a few character transmogrifications, of which Press delivers at least two with especially frightening effect.

The Director

(ARCLIGHT THEATER; 120 SEATS, $ 35)

Production

NEW YORK A Laine Valentino and Kate Wachter presentation of a play in two acts by Nancy Hasty. Directed by Evan Bergman.

Crew

Set, John Farrell; costumes, Jill Kliber; lighting, Steve Rust; stage manager, Rebecca Wilson. Opened Feb. 15, 2000. Reviewed Feb. 12. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.

With

Peter ..... John Shea Annie .....Tasha Lawrence Meg ..... Tanya Clarke Barney ..... Warren Press John ..... Todd Simmons Sally ..... Shula Van Buren
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