Stage and Cinema film and theatre reviews
Theatre Review
by Harvey Perr
published May 21, 2007
now playing at the Irish Repertory Theatre
closes July 8, 2007
Let us all praise Charlotte Moore, the artistic director of The Irish Repertory Theatre, as we go dancing in the streets, for the dandy choice of “Gaslight” as the closing play of their 2006-2007 season, despite the fact that its only connection to things Irish is that its author, Patrick Hamilton, was born on St. Patrick’s Day, and one of its main characters, a former policeman named Rough, keeps a little Irish whiskey in his flask, as any self-respecting Englishman would, should he come upon a lady in distress in need of a little solace. And if you’re wondering, as I was, why anyone would revive this tired chestnut, I urge you to hie on down to West 22nd Street and see the impeccable production which Ms. Moore has directed with pitch-perfect precision and mouth-watering delectation. Who would have thought there was so much gold to be found in this old abandoned mine?
Of course, if you’re going to do “Gaslight” at all, what would be the point if you don’t give it everything you have, which is exactly what Ms. Moore has done. She had her designer, James Morgan, plump down on the theater’s postage-stamp stage an overstuffed Victorian living room, rich and warm and dark, that feels like home and, at the same time, is as inviting as a tomb. Her costume designer, Martha Hally, has created a look that conjures up every photograph you’ve ever seen of the era, of the upstairs inhabitants and the downstairs domestic staff, in every corseted detail, and gets a deliciously louche laugh from the saucy shirt that the aforementioned Mr. Rough reveals when he removes his jacket. And the cast she has assembled couldn’t be better. They play it, as fiddlers on the finest Amatis might, as if they don’t know what is happening from moment to moment, but trusting that their instruments will take them there, which makes the audience a bit jittery, and which, this being a thriller, after all, is absolutely the desired effect.
Off Broadway review of GaslightThe story, a bit hoary now due to the fact that almost everybody is familiar with it, is about the man who slowly but surely convinces his wife – and everyone around her –  that she is going mad, so that he can be rid of her and have the house to himself in order to search for the valuable rubies that are hidden somewhere on the premises, an obsessive search that began when he killed the original owner of the jewels. If you even ask whether there isn’t an easier way to get them, you might as well see some other play. But this one, as they say, has legs. Its history would give trivia experts sleepless nights. It started its life as “Gas Light” on the London stage, but arrived on Broadway as “Angel Street.” A British film version was known as “The Murder in Thornton Square,” even though it took place in Pimlico Square; this version, despite some rearranging and added characters and some nice touches of Victorian atmosphere, hewed pretty closely to the play and was taken out of circulation when MGM decided to make a film version, the one known as “Gaslight” and which is the most famous and most revered of all the versions. And this film, directed by the estimable George Cukor, despite Hollywood’s need to turn the character of the eccentric former policeman into a leading man in order to supply the film with a happy ending, is psychologically richer, more fleshed out, and more complex than the play. The villainous husband in both film versions is, for reasons one trusts had something to do with the moral attitudes of the time, played by continental actors (Anton Walbrook in the British film, Charles Boyer in the American). What made the MGM film so memorable was watching the wife’s slow descent into madness, made chilling by Ingrid Bergman’s beautifully modulated Academy Award-winning performance that culminated in the film’s terrifying last scene in which the wife turns the tables on the man who has been driving her crazy. Even if you’ve seen the film many times, the impact of that scene remains, after all these years, pretty scary stuff.
Ms. Moore has taken the play full circle and brought it back to its original form, and free now of all the baroque trimmings that became fancier with each new version, it turns out that hiding under all that frippery is a neat and tidy and surprisingly juicy little melodrama, one that can be played straight and still work up a lot of suspense and, even better, a great deal of theatrical fun. The husband is an Englishman again, thank you, and, as played by David Staller, the essence of genteel charm and husbandly chagrin. Only the merest glint of evil peeks through; it is fascinating to see reasonableness at the core of his insanity. His seduction of the maid and the abruptness with which he cuts off the seduction is a marvelous look at the manners of the period. The wife is played with exquisite delicacy by Laura Odeh as a child-bride who takes such gleeful pleasure at the possibility of being taken to the theater in one minute and who, in the next moment, is thrown into confused panic when her potential pleasure is destroyed. Patricia O’Connell as a maid sympathetic to her mistress has one of the production’s drollest deadpan moments. And Laoisa Sexton is the embodiment of sauciness as the domestic the husband has eyes for. But it is Brian Murray as Mr. Rough who puts the play in his pocket and, keeping his tricks from our view, gives it an unpredictable spin or two. There is a little business with a hat that is pure comic magic. And watching him discover the riddle of the missing rubies provides one with the special kind of pleasure one gets when a great artist just goes about his business and gets everything right.
It may be a trifle, when all is said and done, but there is nothing in the theater more exciting than seeing professionals working at the top of their game, turning a trifle into a gem. Lovely work.
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