He hasn’t reached the levels of Jane Austen, but playwright Patrick Hamilton is enjoying a renaissance. In 2005, the Drama Dept. staged a cracking Off Broadway revival of his 1929 thriller “Rope,” and Warner Bros. just announced a remake of “Gaslight,” the 1944 film based on his play, also known as “Angel Street.” With fortuitous timing, Irish Repertory Theater also is mounting “Gaslight,” and while the script isn’t as sophisticated as that of “Rope,” it still delivers plenty of suspenseful fun.
Those who only know the movie — which won Ingrid Bergman an Oscar and gave Angela Lansbury her screen debut — will be surprised by the play’s dissimilar plot. But that’s a boon, since auds who know too much may be immune to the show’s charm.
The primary delight comes from discovering how the pieces of this well-crafted mystery fall into place. Hamilton delivers information at just the right pace, so we can be fascinated without feeling confused. Irish Rep a.d. Charlotte Moore echoes his restraint with her slow-burn direction. The production takes its time, letting the eerie mood of a scene build carefully to a revelation. Often, we know something shocking is going to happen long before we know what it is.
The first scene, for instance, is mostly small talk between wealthy Jack Manningham (David Staller) and his wife Bella (Laura Odeh). But even though they are just discussing the theater, it’s obvious something is wrong. Jack keeps off-handedly mentioning that Bella is stupid, and every time he turns to face her in their elegantly furnished sitting room, Odeh flinches. Unease explodes into hysteria when Jack declares his wife is crazy because she swears she didn’t move a painting that’s missing from the wall.
It’s unsettling to watch Odeh insist she’s sane. If “Gaslight” stopped there — with Jack storming out and Bella weeping on the sofa, certain she didn’t move the missing picture — it would be an almost Strindbergian portrait of the psychic wounds couples inflict on each other.
But the play doesn’t stop there, of course. Soon we meet Inspector Rough (Brian Murray), who saunters in to tell Bella about her husband’s dark past, his plot to make her think she’s batty and the dangerous activities going on in her own house.
The inspector is a challenging role since his information transforms the play from psychological drama into cheeky potboiler. Murray chooses to make him a loveable codger, as happy to pour a glass of whiskey as to spill Jack’s dastardly secrets. Against the continued intensity of Odeh and Staller, his perf makes him seem like a clownish interloper in an otherwise serious house.
And that’s the perfect choice. If Murray were as severe as his co-stars, the production would seem ludicrously self-serious. That would be deadly, since the final scene involves a character conveniently bursting from a closet to save the day.
Most audiences will notice such contrivances, and the production could have apologized for them by letting every actor be as loose as Murray. That, however, would make the show campy, undermining the satisfaction of the mystery.
By letting Rough provide comic relief to a dark world, the Irish Rep gets to have it both ways. The company delivers a satisfying noir thriller that gives us permission to chuckle at over-the-top flourishes. Once the silliness has been acknowledged, it’s easier just to sit back and be entertained.