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Voices in the Dark

With "The Blair Witch Project" giving a high-concept, low-budget jolt to film thrillers --- and scaring up more money than anyone bargained for --- it would be nice to report that "Voices in the Dark" is capable of turning the same trick for the genre onstage.

With:
Caller #1 - Nicole Fonarow
Lil - Judith Ivey
Hack - Peter Bartlett
Bill - Tom Stechschulte
Owen - Raphael Sbarge
Red - Lenny Blackburn
Blue - John Ahlin
Egan - Zach Grenier

With “The Blair Witch Project” giving a high-concept, low-budget jolt to film thrillers — and scaring up more money than anyone bargained for — it would be nice to report that “Voices in the Dark” is capable of turning the same trick for the genre onstage. Unfortunately John Pielmeier’s thriller, Broadway’s first in many a full moon, is conspicuously low-concept, a standard-issue psycho-stalks-vulnerable-woman vehicle dressed up with some tired chatshow psychologizing. The play has been mounted with care and expense — David Gallo and Lauren Helpern’s set is an impressive achievement — but it’s still pretty cheap goods. With far superior plays succumbing to the summer slump on Broadway, “Voices in the Dark” will not likely keep the Longacre alight for long.

Judith Ivey plays Pielmeier’s damsel in distress, giving a performance worthy of her distinguished stage history in a play that’s unworthy of her. She plays Lil, a successful radio therapist who receives a spooky call from a murderous-sounding man in the final moments of her last broadcast before she heads off to her husband’s Adirondacks cabin for a week. The remainder of the play takes place in the cabin, rendered by Gallo and Helpern with admirable attention to realistic detail — it has that semi-lived-in, self-consciously rural look of the city dweller’s vacation home.

Ensconced in the lonesome woods, with her husband’s arrival indefinitely delayed, Lil chats with a few potential suspects, including her producer Hack (Peter Bartlett), a quipping queen who makes a mild feint toward red herring-hood before heading off to Vermont; and the more sinister duo of Owen (Raphael Sbarge), a vaguely retarded young man who gets up to some unpleasant things with Lil’s lingerie, and his caretaker, local handyman Blue (John Ahlin), who frets portentously while chopping vegetables and leers lasciviously at Lil. (Although Lil makes derisive cracks about Jerry Springer, “Voices in the Dark” is itself consistently and distastefully coarse-minded.)

The snow falls, the psycho calls, and soon Lil is cowering with the butcher knife as the killer plays sadistic games, Robert Waldman’s Herrmannesque strings screeching ominously in the background.

The play’s plotting is not of the ingenious kind that made, say, “Sleuth” and “Deathtrap” Broadway mainstays — it’s a matter of waiting around to figure out which of the assorted freaks is the murderous one. Instead of intriguing psychological twists we get twisted psychology of a banal kind, with the killer’s motivation hinging on revelations about sexual abuse, all hashed out with Lil in the play’s finale.

There are a few peekaboo scares (one recycled from “Wait Until Dark”), but the play’s setpiece scenes — Lil’s is-he-or-isn’t-he-the-killer sparring with a conveniently weird detective, and the final battle of wits and wills — drag on tediously (a suspense-draining intermission should have been axed).

Christopher Ashley directs with competence, although one might have wished for a superior project for the Off Broadway veteran’s Main Stem debut. Ivey is always convincing and plausible, even when the play isn’t, and the rest of the cast ably perform their one-dimensional roles.

The ad campaign for “Voices in the Dark” emphasizes the genre’s moribund nature: “How long have you been waiting for a new thriller?” runs the tag line. Who’s been waiting? Thrillers have remained a viable film genre even as they’ve all but evaporated from the stage. It’s not happenstance, of course: The intimacy of movies better serves the genre’s visceral appeal, as the unfortunate “Voices in the Dark,” which trades on the same shlocky shocks that are scary movies’ stock in trade, only succeeds in proving.

Voices in the Dark

(Thriller; Longacre Theater, New York; 1,086 seats; $ 60 top)

Production: A Ben Sprecher, William P. Miller, Neil Hirsch and Aaron Levy presentation, in association with Mindy Utay and Steven Rappaport, of a play in two acts by John Pielmeier. Directed by Christopher Ashley.

Creative: Sets, David Gallo; costumes, David C. Woolard; lighting, Donald Holder; music, Robert Waldman; sound, T. Richard Fitzgerald; fight director, B.H. Barry; special effects, Gregory Meeh; production stage manager, John M. Galo. Opened Aug. 12, 1999. Reviewed Aug. 11. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Cast: Caller #1 - Nicole Fonarow
Lil - Judith Ivey
Hack - Peter Bartlett
Bill - Tom Stechschulte
Owen - Raphael Sbarge
Red - Lenny Blackburn
Blue - John Ahlin
Egan - Zach Grenier

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