Murder mysteries and suspense plays, like Frederick Knott’s 1966 Broadway hit Wait Until Dark, are by definition gimmicky contrivances. But if they are tightly written and carefully staged, they can be quite entertaining.
As revived by Boca Stage, which has moved its operations to the Delray Beach Playhouse, this saga of blind housewife Susan Hendricks — menaced by homicidal thugs — starts unraveling early on and never delivers the gasp-worthy chills inherent in the material.
Director Keith Garsson is guilty of insufficient attention to detail, most noticeably with the front door to Susan’s apartment, which locks and unlocks itself with annoying inconsistency. Then there’s the perplexing architecture of the set and the curious lighting cues, which leave the production lacking the realism it so needs to be effective.
Susan (Rachel Whittington) lost her sight in a recent accident and is still adjusting to her handicap. Her tough love freelance photographer husband Sam tries to instill independence in her, but he could never have envisioned the villainous intruders who arrive in his absence. They come in search of a doll stuffed with diamonds, the play’s McGuffin as Hitchcock would put it. Susan is resourceful and resilient, but can she outsmart these bad guys who concoct a more complex than necessary back story to persuade her of their benevolence?
The play was quite popular in the 60s, spurred on by the Audrey Hepburn-Alan Arkin 1967 movie version. But with productions on the wane, Jeffrey Hatcher (Tuesdays with Morrie) was commissioned a decade ago to rewrite the script, getting rid of some — but not all — of its cobwebs.
Hatcher moves the action back to 1944, a time of film noir, dial phones and printed phone books. His version is shorter and less complicated, though he does the narrative no favors with a new exposition-laden opening scene. He has eliminated some of the costumes the intruders once sported to convince Susan of their characters’ authenticity. (She is, after all, blind, making such subterfuge unnecessary.) Ultimately, the play’s success depends on the climactic scene where Susan blacks out her apartment, leveling the visual playing field with her tormenters. At Boca Stage, the result is clumsy at best, made further improbable by Susan’s toppling of a heavy icebox on her would-be assailant.
Despite what director Garsson gets her to do, Whittington’s Susan is an empathy magnet for the audience. Rio Chavarro and Troy J. Stanley are assets as the former Marine lieutenant buddy of Sam’s and the conveniently available police detective, respectively. And young Ellie Rose is every bit as bratty as required for the role of Susan’s upstairs neighbor, Gloria, a largely plot-device character.
In addition to expanded audience capacity and a much roomier lobby area, Boca Stage gains a playing space that allows the multi-tiered set that would never have been possible in its former theater. Now it has to give attention to the space’s acoustics, which muddied much of Wait Until Dark’s dialogue.
WAIT UNTIL DARK, Boca Stage at Delray Beach Playhouse, 950 NW 9th St., Delray Beach. Through Sun., Nov. 5. $39-$69. 561-272-1281.