Freak Winds, the new play having its American premiere at the Arclight Theatre, provokes two serious questions: Do they watch Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone in Australia? And, if so, did Marshall Napier pay close attention to it?
Napier is the author, director, and star of this difficult, but not altogether unlikable, comedy-thriller that's just been imported from Down Under. A big Sydney success in 1999 and 2000, it attracted sell-out crowds to its weird and woozy story about an insurance salesman who knocks on the wrong door during a vicious wind storm. Given that we're seeing two of the show's (sterling) original performers, Damian de Montemas as the salesman and Napier as his unusually cagey mark, we can feel secure that we're seeing something closely akin to Napier's original vision for the material. (The third player, new but fully the equal of her colleagues, is Tamara Lovatt-Smith.)
But ever since Serling's spectacular speculative-fiction series premiered in 1959, we Americans have had higher standards for our spookiness. Serling illuminated the darker, more mystical aspects of the human condition with his show, using television's technology to its fullest to explore the interior life of ordinary people in extraordinary (and often maddening) situations. Most Twilight Zone episodes were modern morality tales, though they were often informative and even more often moving.
So it's unsurprising that, with shows like The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Tales from the Crypt, and others of their ilk, we've come to expect more from thrillers, whether onstage or screen. Today's leading practitioner of the all-but-vanished stage chiller genre is Martin McDonagh, who demonstrated last year with The Pillowman and this year with The Lieutenant of Inishmore that you can still use the peculiar language of the stage to tell a full-out story in a way as gripping as it is theatrical.
Napier adheres more closely to McDonagh's philosophy than Serling's, devoting his two-hour play almost entirely to a game of an-indeterminate-number-of-cats-and-mouse. But as de Montemas's Henry Crumb runs between Napier's scheming Ernest and Lovatt-Smith's mysterious Myra, it becomes obvious that it's not Napier's style that sets his writing apart, but the content he emphasizes.
The play's first 20 minutes, in which Henry slowly realizes he should be more concerned about saving his own life than selling Ernest a policy to protect his, deftly defines the two combatants and their ever-shifting battleground. But nothing that follows lives up to that initial promise, and the characters themselves never grow much beyond what they're like at inception.
It doesn't help that Napier devotes so much time to the back and forth (occasionally sensual) between Myra and the men; it's intended to cast doubt on who she is and who she's working for (and against), but it's too drably drawn sketchily realized to provide an engrossing central conundrum. Unfortunately, if you lose interest in this conflict, you all but lose interest in the play; after several rounds of role reversal before intermission, I stopped caring whether her real identity would ever be revealed. (For the record, it is. But even after it is, puzzling out the specifics can be tricky.)
Napier's direction is best in the more suspenseful, bang-for-your-buck moments than in the quieter interludes, which are staged in ways far too lackadaisical to keep the atmosphere necessarily tense. The actors work very hard to create compelling characters, but succeed only intermittently, again moreso in the bigger, frenetic scenes than the (relatively) laid-back sections between. Napier projects a nice sense of stern command, and de Montemas charms as the victimizer who's soon to become a victim. He doesn't, however, have any particular chemistry with Lovatt Smith, which makes a bit too much nonsense of the already nonsensical, plot-driven relationship that develops between Myra and Henry.
All the plot twists in the world (and Freak Winds certainly has its share) can't replace a solid foundation of character and common sense. As a rule, Serling's and McDonagh's works operate within rigid strictures of internal logic, and do precious little that's cheap, gratuitous, or sloppy; the same can't be said of Napier's work here, which displays real promise, but just isn't strong enough to blow one over.