Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Out of gas

Marianna Bassham and Robert Serrell struggle with Gaslight.

Stoneham's revival of Gaslight has gotten nearly-rave reviews - which, I confess, struck me as more mysterious than any of the plot "twists" in this creaky old chestnut. I suppose Patrick Hamilton's 1938 chiller marked a big step up in terms of craft from the melodramas on which it was based (it ran for years on Broadway, for a time with Vincent Price). And of course it provided the source for the famous Ingrid Bergman film, which I suppose counts as a minor classic (although it doesn't hold up all that well today, either - film buffs might be interested to know that a Hamilton play also served as the basis for Hitchcock's far-better Rope).

The trouble with Gaslight is basically that it's just an entertainment vehicle, and over the years its format has been brought to a much higher pitch in various more-entertaining hits (like Wait Until Dark and Deathtrap - even Sleuth is essentially a descendant). Hamilton's premise - a wife being driven mad by her psychopathic husband - is of course a solid one, but the playwright's construction now looks clunky, and his dialogue - well, let's just say the actors have their work cut out for them.

And it's true most of them do their best to put their lines over. I basically went to the show to see what local star Marianna Bassham (at left) could do with it, but I'm afraid the answer is: make it work, but not much more. This is partly because she doesn't have much to work with in the performance of co-star Robert Serrell, who plays hubby in a calm monotone that I guess is designed to drive us crazy as well as Bassham, and almost does just that. But alas, it also deprives the show of the tonal variety it needs to stay afloat. Christopher Webb manages better as the detective ex machina who rescues the heroine - he and Bassham strike a few sparks, even though their scenes seem quite choppy at times. Local stalwarts Angie Jepson and Dee Nelson contribute effective cameos, and Katy Monthei's atmospheric set is spookily lit by Jeff Adelberg (whose work is almost always a little spooky, come to think of it). I have to admit the audience I saw it with seemed to enjoy this script's very mild thrills - perhaps for their very mildness - but it was hard for me to shake the impression that Gaslight may at this point be out of gas.