Two-time Tony Award winner Matthew Broderick has proved he’s a great charmer on stage, but his easy appeal works against him in the role of the seductive psychopath in the National Actors Theater revival of Emlyn Williams’ 1935 English thriller “Night Must Fall.” Broderick’s slightly mischievous good looks and borrowed Irish brogue lend him a certain boyish menace, as though he’s plotting a naughty game of doctor, but it’s hard to imagine him committing a truly serious crime, let alone two brutal murders. The production, directed by John Tillinger, is stylishly designed to resemble a black-and-white film. Yet lacking a convincing killer, it stoops to scare tactics that occasionally startle though fail to provoke genuine Hitchcockian suspense.
The action begins with a seismic crackle of thunder and a flash of (what has now become commonplace on Broadway) male genitalia. Through the window of an English cottage living room a naked man can be seen burying a body in the middle of the night. The house be-longs to Mrs. Bramson (Judy Parfitt), a miserly invalid who wakes the next morning to find a police investigation going on in her backyard. An old widow from the town has been reported missing, though Bramson can’t see what this news has to do with her or why it should get in the way of her routine scolding of the servants.
One of her maids, Dora (Seana Kofoed), has just confessed to being pregnant out-of-wedlock. The male culprit is Dan (Broderick), a sweet-talking new bellhop at the nearby inn, who apparently has been keeping company with the woman whose disappearance has alerted Scotland Yard. Bramson summons the offender for a lecture on paternal responsibility, but instead of chiding him falls for his sentimental con game.
To the consternation of her dependent niece, Olivia (J. Smith-Cameron), the old woman not only shows the conniving fellow where she keeps her money but hires him as her new companion.
Though it’s painfully obvious that the new employee is after the contents of Bramson’s safe, it’s never clear what exactly the women want from him. The crotchety, wheelchair-bound matriarch becomes uncharacteristically nurturing in his presence, while Olivia, who’s stalling her bland, eager-to-get-married beau Hubert (Michael Countryman), grows increasingly fascinated the more she discovers about Dan’s criminal past.
Psychologically, it never seems to add up. For the play to work, the actor playing Dan (a role Williams wrote for himself and played in the West End and on Broadway) must give off a sinister sexual undercurrent. “Night Must Fall” dramatizes the way we literally court, in all the word’s libidinous implications, our own fears. Broderick’s Dan, dashing though he is, lacks the requisite subliminal pull. He may be dangerous or even violently deranged, but Robert Downey Jr. he’s not.
Parfitt does a fine job as the vainly arrogant Bramson, particularly in her final moments, when she experiences the terror of being all alone in an empty house. Her dread quickly intensifies, fueling itself, until the man she’s paid to take care of her finally shows up as her worst nightmare.
Smith-Cameron’s studious appearance perfectly suggests Olivia’s sexual discontent, though her performance sheds little additional light on her character’s mysterious behavior. The supporting cast is generally fine, particularly Patricia Kilgarriff as the wisecracking maid and Countryman as Olivia’s devoted if humdrum suitor.
The visually attractive production features James Noone’s lonely Essex woods bungalow and Jess Goldstein’s costumes. Brian MacDevitt’s lighting and David Van Tieghem’s music make the anxiety of imminent nightfall palpable.
Tillinger has taken some liberties with the play itself. In addition to substituting the above-mentioned nude scene for Williams’ superflu-ous courtroom prologue, he’s turned the symbolic fire Dan ignites at the end into a literal one. Neither change is earthshattering, but they suggest the director’s need to further sensationalize melodramatic material that a more subtle, character-based approach could have trans-formed into something truly scary.