Steve Braunstein knows to take his own tantalizingly sweet time in the new thriller “The Soul of an Intruder.” In this age of instant-gratification entertainment, where opening-scene slice-and-dice has replaced careful plot development and shaded characterizations, stage time is a writer’s most precious commodity. Braunstein and director Frank Cento squander it most judiciously. Of course, playwrights don’t write thrillers anymore, the genre having been completely co-opted by the movies. Last season’s “The Director,” by Nancy Hasty, was a welcome return to the form, as is Braunstein’s less even but still effective “Intruder.”
Hitchcock knew that the mundane was terror’s most fertile breeding ground. Think of the first reels, and often second reels, of “Rear Window,” “Vertigo,” “Psycho” and “The Birds.” Dull people doing dull things until…
Cento brings the pace down to a crawl even before Braunstein’s Mabel Codd (Sylva Kelegian) utters one word. (If the name Mabel Codd isn’t a fish/fowl play on Hitch’s Marion Crane, it should be.)
Home from a long day at her hat shop — to paraphrase Stephen Sondheim, does anyone wear a hat these days? — Mabel enters her Connecticut home to perform the early-evening ritual of shedding off her shoes, turning on the radio, eating her Chinese take-out before flicking on the single person’s last resort for human contact, the phone-answering machine.
The recorded voice belongs to Jack Amsterdam (Stephen Beach), an old flame from college, and guess what? He’s waiting at Mabel’s front door. She is extremely nervous, and he is inordinately attentive, even though they haven’t seen each other in 15 years. It must have been some hot-damn affair.
Finally, after about 20 minutes of the most mundane neither-of-us-can-wait-to-jump-each-other’s-bones small talk, he gets around to proposing marriage, she accepts and we learn that their collegiate romance was actually a one-night stand.
This is not a spine-tingling moment. You might even miss it. Braunstein kind of sneaks this info in there amid all the other mind-numbing chit-chat, but the revelation registers nonetheless.
The real kicker comes with act one, scene two, which begins with a nearly identical encounter involving yet another long-lost boyfriend from college, Eddie Dixon (Cliff Diamond), who is nice but doesn’t quite possess Jack’s irresistible sadistic flair. (Misogyny is one of the play’s guilty pleasures.)
In fact, maybe Eddie downright bores Mabel. At one point, she even forgets he’s there in the house with her. Suffice it to say, “Intruder” is a meditation on fantasy and reality and what happens when the latter is dull enough to drive you back into the arms of your own worst sexual nightmare. In this context, Chas W. Roeder’s peach-on-peach decor gets creepier as the drama unfolds.
Braunstein leisurely takes his time in act one, but appears to get stuck in the second half when he should be pulling together the strands of Mabel’s fantasy to deliver the big punch. Slow is one thing, repetition quite another. Cento doesn’t help here. While he gives the first act a cool steady burn, his direction gets a little too jazzy in act two when Mabel’s worlds collide.
A disco-fever nightmare on her bed, complete with refracted swirling light, registers unintentionally as parody. And the final encounter between the three characters is pure visual overkill.
As for Kelegian’s Mabel, she carries more tics than a herd of deer out on Fire Island. Less might be more, especially in the first scene. Amazingly, the repressed weirdness of her portrayal builds into a mighty arc that never fails to sustain the play’s suspense.
Beach brings a nice nasty edge to his role, even when he’s not air-boxing or pounding somebody’s imaginary skull into the palm of his hand. In this threeway, Diamond doesn’t quite measure up to the other sides of the triangle. He never registers as a stalker. Also, he appears to be at least 10 years younger than Kelegian, even though their characters were classmates.
Cento might have scored a coup de theatre if the Amsterdam role had also been cast a good 10 years too young. But let’s not give away too much of the plot.