An Old Mystery

If you've seen the famous 1944 Ingrid Bergman/Charles Boyer film Gaslight, then you've seen Hollywood's spin on the late British playwright Patrick Hamilton's dark thriller Angel Street. But what you may not have seen is Hamilton's original version, which is both quite different from the movie and a terrific whodunit.

It's Hamilton's 1938 original that's currently being presented at the Alley, and it shows what live theater can do that even the best film cannot. Hamilton (who also wrote the play Rope, which he based on the Leopold-Loeb murder case in Chicago) was a writer more interested in the psychology of violence than in violence itself. And Angel Street is, at its heart, about the dark secrets of the human condition, which gives it the potential to be much more than a simple Agatha Christie mystery or a game of Clue. The play's central conflict revolves around a woman who has been so systematically tyrannized by her husband that she begins to believe him when he tells her that she's lost her mind.

"Be gentle with me," she begs. Of course, he's anything but, berating her in front of the servants, "medicating" her and flirting with the maid as his wife looks on. But Mr. Manningham is much more than a mean-spirited jerk. And his malicious intent becomes increasingly clear over the course of one nerve-wracking evening: Using a series of elaborate mind games, the snake is trying to drive his wife crazy. True, this plot line has been made terribly familiar by many Saturday-afternoon TV melodramas, but because this mystery unravels on-stage, there's a thoughtful urgency to it that Murder She Wrote reruns can't come close to matching.

Too, the enormously luscious and unsettling, blood-red Victorian set created by Tony Award-winning designer Tony Straiges, as well as the gothic lighting, replete with dark, lacy shadows, provided by Rui Rita, add a compelling and visceral dimension to the play's suspense. Thanks to them, it really is a dark and gloomy night.

Hamilton's play is so tightly written that it can't help but be suspenseful, even in the Alley's stodgy and sometimes slow version. Unfortunately, director Gregory Boyd brings no new spin to this old tale. The production is neither inspired nor original in any way, and as a result, the play, which was so innovative in its day, seems a bit creaky in the joints. Still, it's an admirable and even elegant night of theater, even if it's a long way from the "thrilling" promised in the Alley's advertising.

Indeed, the only time when this production finds a new moment in the script is when Mr. Manningham shoots up his pathetic and confused wife with "medicine." In the original script, she simply swallows a powder. But watching someone shoot up is obviously more titillating than simply watching someone swallow powder, especially in these days of heroin chic; and the elaborate 19th-century syringe and "works" look really cool on stage. And then there's the matter of seeing a rarefied and wealthy Victorian housewife hungrily rolling up her delicate lace sleeve to wrap her arm in tubing, making her vein ready to receive her hit.

Still, for all its sensationalism, the display is ultimately silly. Having Mrs. Manningham shoot up simply isn't logical, within the plot, since within ten minutes of receiving her "medicine" (clearly some sort of opiate to calm her nerves) she's at her most lucid, talking to a police detective and making sense out of the mess she's gotten herself into with her sociopathic husband. Still, when the ticket agent enticingly warned me that there was a scene in the play where "someone shoots up," my interest was unquestionably piqued.

But when the shooting-up turned out to be a red herring, it, like all red herrings, proved more irritating than entertaining; moreover, it seemed utterly unnecessary. The performances are fine and solid, and at this point in the play, the audience clearly wants to know what happens next. So why take a side trip into the garish? Mrs. Manningham's character is already complicated enough to leave the audience unsure as to her mental capacities. Like Lorena Bobbitt, who seemed simply a victim of her abusive husband until she also tried to off her mother, Mrs. Manningham seems to be just a victim of her horrific mate until ... well, until later in the action.

As Mrs. Manningham, Shelley Williams suffers the verbal nastiness of her wicked husband until she breaks down and believes she really might be going mad, but then she seems perfectly clear-headed, only to appear to be going truly mad, moments later. It's a difficult role, and one that Williams handles with grace, if not a great deal of imagination. With vague, wide eyes and a nervously handled hankie, Williams so generalizes Mrs. Manningham's madness and confusion that it's hard to feel a great deal of sympathy for her. But certainly Williams shows herself to be an actress with a great deal of stamina -- her character rarely leaves the stage -- and Williams's acting choices get more complicated and far more interesting during the play's second half.

Playing the weasel, Mr. Manningham, John Feltch gets better and better as Mr. Manningham gets meaner and meaner to his wife. By the end of the play, Mr. Manningham, who wears his pants hitched up over his belly like an oily, third-rate gangster, is practically evil personified. At one point, he imagines that he could have been an actor. And clearly he's right. There's no telling what a man like Mr. Manningham will do in the end.

Amy McKenna makes a lovely and saucy Nancy. Though she's a maid that any self-respecting Victorian housewife would fire on day one, poor Mrs. Manningham has had the self-respect tongue-lashed right out of her, and thus can only suffer her servant's coquettish ways. McKenna has terrific energy and charisma on-stage.

But this production's star is Ross Bickell as Rough, a retired police inspector who wants more than anything to get his man. He is, as his name implies, a diamond in the rough who carries Scotch whiskey in his coat pocket and slurps tea with all the manners of a billy goat. Manners, it seems, are of no consequence to the manly types engaged in solving crimes. Bickell's Rough is funny, smart and a bit of a bully himself, and the whole production takes off when he first steps on-stage.

If these characters sound like stereotypes, it's because they've become so, generated as they were by successful originals such as Patrick Hamilton's play. And though the Alley's production brings nothing new or brilliant to the play, that won't keep you from dying to find out just who did do it.

Angel Street plays through February 7 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 228-8421.

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Lee Williams