Stage Scene LA: Night Watch “A Giddy, Suspenseful Delight”

What’s an insomnia-plagued Manhattan matron to do when she catches sight of a dead body inside the abandoned building across the street from her elegant apartment but scream, scream, and scream some more … and then call the cops? And what’s a concerned husband to do when the police investigation turns up no corpse, no fingerprints, no sign of anyone’s having entered the neighboring flat but suggest that his apparently delusional wife seek psychiatric help? And what’s an audience to do while watching Lucille Fletcher’s Night Watch but sit back and enjoy this takeoff on Gaslight, one whose surprise twist ending I’m absolutely itching to reveal here … but won’t.

Admittedly, Fletcher’s suspense thriller, now playing at Beverly Hills’ Theatre 40, is about the farthest thing from high art as a “drama of suspense” can get. It ran a scant 121 performances in its 1971 Broadway run, a 1985 revival prompting the New York Times to declare the play a “turkey,” which is to say that if you’re looking for Albee, Miller, Williams, or a play the caliber of Ira Levin’s 1793-performance Death Trap, you will likely come away disappointed.

If, on the other hand, you follow this reviewer’s advice and simply savor every shiver, gasp, and chuckle-inspiring moment as delivered by T40’s crackerjack cast under Bruce Gray’s sharp direction, you’ll likely have every bit as much fun as I did.

At first, second, and even third glance, Elaine Wheeler (Jennifer Lee Laks) appears to be every bit the nut case her husband John (Martin Thompson) has determined her to be, and leading lady Laks plays her in classic damsel-in-distress mode in a performance that would do the Joans (Bennett, Crawford, and Fontaine) proud.

Elaine’s husband and her best friend Blanche (Christine Joëlle) are both sympathetic to Elaine’s distress, if not particularly convinced that she isn’t seeing things, especially when Elaine spots (and once again reports to the police) a second body in the same room as the first, only to have the “crime scene” turn up once again without any trace of a murder having been committed.

Could it be that Elaine truly is imagining things, or might either John or Blanche or the two of them in cahoots be attempting to drive her completely bonkers, a la Charles Boyer, with Elaine an unwitting stand-in for Ingrid Bergman?

Like Laks, Thompson and Joëlle play it straight, and quite well indeed, leaving it to Night Watch’s cast of supporting and cameo characters to create one colorful featured performance after another.

There’s Judy Nazemetz’s too too Teutonic Helga, ever gliding soundlessly into Elaine’s living room as if on a moving sidewalk, the better to spook her mistress, though whether this is inadvertent or by design is anyone’s guess. A topnotch Leda Siskind gives us a stern, rather mannish psychiatrist Dr. Tracey Lake in perfect counterpoint to Lary Ohlson’s fabulously flaming Curtis Appleby, the Wheelers’ flamboyantly theatrical neighbor whose neighborhood rag the Kips Bay Tattler thrives on the kind of gossipy news Elaine’s penetrating screams have inspired him to pop over and investigate.

David Hunt Stafford gives T40 audiences his best Brooklynese as Lieutenant Walker, sent over to investigate the alleged “moidahs,” while John McGuire is an equally spot-on Noo Yawk delicatessen owner with a startling resemblance to the first of Elaine’s two dead bodies. Last but not least is Jonathan Medina’s absolutely terrific cameo as Gonzalez (Vannelli in Fletcher’s original script), a beat cop with an out-of-left-field knowledge of fine art.

Night Watch sports one of the finest production designs I’ve seen at Theatre 40, scenic designer Jeff G. Rack outdoing himself with the Wheelers’ smartly furnished and appointed Kips Bay flat, its jet-black walls festooned with paintings by Picasso, Modigliani, and Kandinsky. Ric Zimmerman’s sensational, appropriately spooky lighting design ups the suspense again and again as does Bill Froggatt’s masterful sound design, a mix of mood-setting music and dramatic effects, with special kudos due Froggatt for the play’s penultimate moments, played out entirely in sound effects. As for Michèle Young’s 1970s costumes, each and every one is a period treat.

Brigid O’Brian is assistant director. Don Solosan is stage manager. Night Watch is produced by Theatre 40 artistic director Stafford.
Were it played without just the right smidgen of tongue in cheek, Night Watch could quickly go entirely wrong and become precisely the “turkey” the NY Times called it back in ‘85. Successfully avoiding every pitfall, Theatre 40’s revival of Fletcher’s “drama of suspense” ends up a giddy, suspenseful delight.