Did She or Didn't She?

Long before Stephen King bloodied up the silver screen, or John Carpenter slithered up our spines, or Hitchcock became the master of pins-and-needles, there was Bayard Veiller, the great-granddaddy of all scary storytellers. In fact, back in 1929, when Veiller's stage play-turned-screenplay The Thirteenth Chair came before a newly assembled team of Hollywood censors, the nervous Nellies found the story so terrifying that they invented a whole new rating to warn the unsuspecting public. Veiller's script became the first official horror film when it was rated H, for horror.

These days Veiller's tale of murder in the fast lane wouldn't earn so much as a second glance from the most vigilant of parental advisory label supporters. It's a wild yet refined ride of whodunit thrills, where the rich wear gossamer gowns, tuxedoed servants stand ready to pour champagne, and smugly smiling murderers hide quietly in plain view, where no one ever thinks to look. But the way the Alley Theatre tells Veiller's story in the first installment of its Summer Chills series will keep even the most jaded thrill-seeker sitting near the edge of his velvet seat.

When the play begins, all is hunky-dory in the Crosby household, as so often seems the case with people who have gobs of money. Designer Kevin Rigdon has filled the stage with blood-red Persian carpets, pearly gray silk chaises longues and creamy ornate trimmings. The innocent corruption of the 1920s flows into every glass of bubbly at the party going on in the dinning room just off stage. Every time the double doors open, peals of laughter escape. While their guests revel in the next room, Roscoe Crosby and his wife (Charles Krohn and Bettye Fitzpatrick) congratulate their son Will (Ty Mayberry) on his engagement to the pretty Helen O'Neill (Jennifer Cherry).

It doesn't matter that Helen has no money or social standing. The Crosbys are thrilled their son has found someone who makes him so happy. And the kissy young couple does seem to be in love. But just as the Crosbys are planning the announcement, in walks the devilish Edward Wales (K. Todd Freeman) to muck it all up. Wales, who stands with his hands tucked deep into the pockets of his black tuxedo, tells the family he doesn't approve of the match. What they don't know is that Wales thinks Helen killed his best friend, Spencer Lee. Seems she went to his place to retrieve some mysterious letters, and soon after, Lee turned up dead -- stabbed in the back, straight through his heart. Neither the weapon nor the letters was ever found.

Without any evidence to help his crusade for justice, Wales calls on Madame Rosalie La Grange (Kimberly King) to hold a séance that very night. Helen's lovely red lips fairly tremble when she hears this. Wales hopes to ask the dead Spencer to identify his killer.

While the plot might sound benign, director Gregory Boyd manages to amp up the creep factor with well-timed campy music. Just like in an old picture show, Boyd's dark music tells us when to be nervous. By the time Madame Rosalie makes her entrance, with a good-humored Irish brogue on her tongue and an irreverent glint in her eyes, we know we're in for a grand old- fashioned mystery, the sort that has the audience arguing at intermission over who did what to whom.

Much of the power behind this surprisingly enjoyable show comes from King's big-hearted Madame Rosalie, who all but walks away with the story. She wows both the party revelers and the Alley audience with her sleight-of-hand tricks -- including lifting a table with only the power of her mind. "I've been a faker all my life," she says to herself, King's command over Rosalie's tricks making the line utterly believable. Only James Black, with his trench-coated, just-the-facts-ma'am Inspector Donohue, can match energies with King.

In fairness to the rest of the cast, Black and King have the only two well-written characters in the play. All the others are simply pawns in the plot game that moves the story ahead. This is a mistake that great mystery writers such as Agatha Christie would never make. But King's and Black's performances provide such charmingly imagined focal points that they more than make up for the weaknesses in Veiller's story.

One of the best Summer Chills productions in the past five years, The Thirteenth Chair is filled with joyfully nerve-racking fun, and it will keep you wondering who done it till the deadly end.

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Lee Williams