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Gaslight

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

Gaslight
Laura Odeh and David Staller
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Oh, for the gentler, more innocent days when a simple lighting effect was enough to get an audience’s collective pulse racing! Theatre has progressed so far in the last 70 years that what once might have elicited gasps now barely raises an eyebrow. But under the right circumstances today, the dimming of a light or the unexpected placing of hands around the neck can still chill more thoroughly than a festival of horror movies.

By all rights, Patrick Hamilton’s play Gaslight should have relinquished its ability to send shivers down our spines some 50 years ago. But as Charlotte Moore’s handsome, juicily acted production of it now at the Irish Repertory Theatre proves, stale can be a temporary state of mind. Originally known as Angel Street on these shores and immortalized on film with Ingrid Bergman and Angela Lansbury, this play may be dramatically overstuffed and even unremarkable by today’s standards, but it remains an addictive nail-biter.

Hamilton’s plays, as a rule, have not aged well. His concepts of suspense are barely in keeping with ours, drawing so much from irony and off-handedness as to not provoke the shrieks or shocks you imagine they could have when new. An Off-Broadway revival of Hamilton’s Rope in 2005 revealed that script so hopelessly antiquated, it could only be enjoyed through judicious use of a time machine. Gaslight, which is set in 1880 and lays out its own mystery in a similar way (an unspoken crime between two young people is unmasked and thwarted by an older guardian of the peace), would not seem better suited to our more aware age.

However, its story, of the newly married Manninghams, Bella and Jack (played here by Laura Odeh and David Staller), maintains its grip on surprise until the final scene, even though its twists and revelations are transparent enough to have been constructed from glass. Rope’s drama was predicated on the question, “Will these hooligans be caught?”, while Gaslight’s is the far more enticing, “Who’s really crazy here?” That makes Hamilton’s writing, if predictable by modern sensibilities, far more devourable as theatre.

Gaslight
Brian Murray and Laura Odeh
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

You learn early on that Jack fears Bella’s encroaching insanity, because of her inability to remember hiding a portrait of his first wife or losing grocery bills or jewelry and because her mother lost her own mind and died far too young. And you learn soon after, with the arrival of the police detective Rough (Brian Murray), that this is all a ruse of Jack’s to cover up his return to the scene of a crime perpetuated 15 years ago by a young man to whom he bears a striking resemblance. But if Rough is to prove Jack is the man he’s been searching for, he needs both proof and Bella on his side.

There’s not much ambiguity here, and the outcome of Rough’s crusade, as well as Jack’s final guilt or innocence, is hardly in doubt. But Hamilton keeps you guessing about Bella’s true motivations, setting up just enough miniature surprises to nourish you along the way, and Moore’s taut direction never allows the story’s inherent obviousness to intrude on the spinning of a good yarn. Even with liver-spotted plot developments, like the amorous advances between Jack and the younger of his maids, Nancy (Laoisa Sexton), and Bella’s razor-wielding change of heart, you believe in the crises at hand so fully that you can’t laugh them away as easily as you could with Rope.

Moore refuses to entertain any hint of ritual melodrama, outside of James Morgan’s sumptuous Victorian living-room set, a crushingly normal setting for a tensely abnormal play, Martha Hally’s luxurious costumes, and Brian Nason’s uncertainty rich lighting (which is as important as the play’s title might suggest). The acting is all spot-on, with Odeh harrowing as the tormented Bella, Staller all smooth-talking dagger-plunging as Jack, and Sexton and Patricia O’Connell wary but watchful bystanders of questionable degrees of innocence.

Murray avoids all pretense and all cliché as the crime-solving, doddering detective. Murray is rightfully renowned for his comic chops, which have served him well in everything from Stoppard to Albee and Shakespeare, but he never outwardly shows them here. His Rough is one who believes in his potential as a stereotype, and does everything he can to keep it from coming to pass, which makes him funnier and more formidable than Hamilton probably intended, but gives the play an added layer of complexity: Rough is trying to hold together the law just as he’s trying to hold together himself as he nears the completion of the great unsolved mystery of his life.

Rough becomes, then, more than just a policemen, but the avatar of order in a highly chaotic universe. Murray unquestionably centers and steadies the play with this interpretation, making it somewhat more universal than the run-of-the-mill thriller it might resemble on paper. But Moore and her cast are just as responsible for ensuring that the passage of time has not impaired Gaslight’s ability to thrill, time and time again.


Gaslight
Through July 8
Irish Repertory Theater, 132 West 22nd Street
TICKETS: The Irish Repertory Theatre Box Office at (212) 727-2737