Freak Winds

Utter randomness can be funny, but can it ever be scary? Not according to the evidence provided by "Freak Winds," a purported thriller that never bothers to link one moment of its plot to the next. As an audience, we need to be able to follow a play's development, or else we can't get wrapped up in how the plot pushes characters into dreadful corners.

With:
Ernest - Marshall Napier Myra - Tamara Lovatt-Smith Henry Crumb - Damian de Montemas

Utter randomness can be funny, but can it ever be scary? Not according to the evidence provided by “Freak Winds,” a purported thriller that never bothers to link one moment of its plot to the next. Suspense demands logical progression. As an audience, we need to be able to follow a play’s development, or else we can’t get wrapped up in how the plot pushes characters into dreadful corners. If we can’t sense a thriller’s craft, we can’t trust it to reward us for paying attention.

Marshall Napier — who not only wrote “Freak Winds,” but also directs and stars — squanders that trust right away. Consider this bogus setup: During a mighty thunderstorm, insurance salesman Henry Crumb (Damian de Montemas) barges into an old man’s home, insisting he had an appointment to sell a policy. The old man, Ernest (Napier), never wanted insurance, but he lets Henry stay as the rain howls outside.

If it weren’t for the cliche creepiness of the storm, this scene could not even pretend to be mysterious. There are so many contrivances — whoops, a tree smashed Henry’s car! Guess he has to stay! — that the action becomes ludicrous. How convenient, for instance, that when Ernest goes to make coffee, Henry heads right for the man’s scrapbooks and starts reading them aloud. Otherwise, neither he nor we would know Ernest is obsessed with reports of dead girls.

That discovery leads to several more uninspired twists, including the appearance of Myra (Tamara Lovatt-Smith), a femme fatale in a wheelchair who alternately claims to be Ernest’s friend, lover and daughter. These two have naughty plans for young Henry, but each new sexual advance or half-hearted mind game just makes them seem more like caricatures.

Lovatt-Smith camps up her “dirty mommy” persona to the point of distraction. Meanwhile, de Montemas’ primary choice is talking as fast as he can. Maybe this is meant to signal his slick city wiles, but it just leaves half his lines unintelligible.

Napier does a decent slow boil as the standard “ordinary man with dark secrets,” but as a director he needs to guide his cast toward perfs that support the play’s mood.

He also might want to have a word with his designers about overcompensating. Rie Ono’s lights especially strain for eerie effects: Often, when a character stands next to an upstage table lamp, it will burn extra bright, trying to create a spooky spotlight. Mostly, though, the effect just seems pointlessly supernatural, like the radio reports of how the storm has caused record-setting winds.

Only a slapdash thriller could forget to clarify whether its chills come from paranormal forces or real-life evil. And it’s just that kind of sloppiness that pushes us far from the edge of our seats.

Freak Winds

Arclight Theater; 99 seats; $25 top

Production: A Hair of the Dog presentation of a play in two acts, written and directed by Marshall Napier.

Creative: Set, Jeremy Chernick; costumes, Ileana Chan; lighting, Rie Ono; sound, Andrew Ivanov; production stage manager, Felicity Jurd. Opened March 28, 2006. Reviewed April 3. Running time: 1 HOUR, 50 MIN.

Cast: Ernest - Marshall Napier Myra - Tamara Lovatt-Smith Henry Crumb - Damian de Montemas

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