Review: ‘Temporary Help’

David Wiltse's "Temporary Help" comes full circle, both opening and closing with an explosion and a dead body. In between, the main question raised is whether this play is primarily a thriller or a comedy. With four skilled actors bringing veracity to their characterizations, the production has much liveliness.

David Wiltse’s “Temporary Help” comes full circle, both opening and closing with an explosion and a dead body. In between, the main question raised is whether this play is primarily a thriller or a comedy. With four skilled actors bringing veracity to their characterizations, the production has much liveliness. But comedy-thrillers are tough tightropes to walk, and this one, though a bold try, is a bit too wobbly for comfort.

Presumably inspired by game-playing comedy-thrillers epitomized by Ira Levin’s “Deathtrap,” Wiltse’s kinky sex-and-violence play was workshopped at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater in 1990-91, when Gordon Edelstein was the LWT’s associate artistic director. In 1999, Edelstein directed the play’s premiere at Seattle’s A Contemporary Theater, where he is currently a.d. Edelstein has now brought the play, somewhat revised, back to Connecticut as the final offering of the Westport Country Playhouse’s disappointing 2001 season.

“Temporary Help” is full of fashionable pop psychology (all three central characters were abused, physically, mentally and/or sexually, when they were young, and there are hints of homosexuality) and barely suppressed ugliness. Its seven scenes take place in a Nebraska farmhouse over a couple of months.

The central trio are the farmer (Jeffrey DeMunn) and his wife (Karen Allen) and the latest drifter (Chad Allen) they’ve employed as temporary help. Seems the breed is indeed short-lived here: The wife has had an affair (if that’s the word) with each in turn, after which her husband murders him.

The current victim is a well-built young man with whom the farmer wrestles suggestively (biting his ear at one point) and whom the wife appears to see as a possible way out of a marriage littered with corpses. Not one of these three is a pleasant or sympathetic character as they play psychological cat and mouse with one another. The play tips toward comedy as it goes along, but in the end it’s unclear whether the audience is laughing with it or at it.

DeMunn, in particular, and Chad Allen have the necessary physical toughness and weirdness for their roles, and Karen Allen projects loneliness, sexiness and maybe craziness effectively. As the local sheriff, Sam Freed is a beacon of, more-or-less, sanity. The set is a bit slapdash, and movement in the wings during the performance is evident (at one point Karen Allen and possibly the stage manager could be seen for several minutes through the set’s kitchen window). The WCP’s new management still has a ways to go.

Temporary Help

Westport Country Playhouse, Westport, Conn.; 707 seats; $48 top

Production

A Westport Country Playhouse presentation, by special arrangement with ShadowCatcher Entertainment, of a play in two acts by David Wiltse. Directed by Gordon Edelstein.

Creative

Set, Derek McLane; costumes, Jennifer von Mayrhauser; lighting, Kenneth Posner; sound, Jerry M. Yager; original sound design, Stephen LeGrand; music, Bill Frisell; fight choreographer, J. Steven White; production stage manager, Adrienne Willis. Westport Country Playhouse artistic director, Joanne Woodward. Opened, reviewed Aug. 31, 2001. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Cast

Karl Streber - Jeffrey DeMunn Faye Streber - Karen Allen Ron Stucker - Sam Freed Vincent Castelnuovo-Tedesco - Chad Allen
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