Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Dead Certain: Inept "Thriller"
(N.B.: There are some "spoilers" contained herein deemed necessary by the reviewer for a substantive review of this play. A general overview of the review can be gleaned from the first two paragraphs and final two paragraphs which are "spoiler" free.)
The setting is the living room of a house in the London countryside. Its owner-occupant is Elizabeth, an embittered, no longer young former ballerina now wheelchair bound. Elizabeth has engaged Michael, a handsome, young London stage actor to come to the house in order to sight read a role in a play that she has written, ostensibly to enable her to better gauge the condition of her effort. However, as per the conventions of the genre, nothing is as it seems and her true motive is hidden in what we anticipate to be dark and terrible secrets in their pasts.
Elizabeth early on produces two revolvers from a desk drawer. She states that she is introducing them so their appearance doesn't appear arbitrary when they are used later on. She then informs Michael that she has written a two character play that has the very same set up as their current situation. She tells Michael that in her play, Liza has brought his character Nick to her house to read a play, but that "it's just an excuse to get him to come," and, in the end, Liza wants him to shoot her because she has lost the will to live. She wants Nick to have pain in killing her because he is responsible for her being crippled, due to his carelessness and negligence. She will force him to shoot her by shooting him in the leg.
As they begin to read, it is apparent that the characters are almost mirror reflections of Michael and Elizabeth (excepting that Elizabeth vainly has described her character as being 25 and beautiful), and the events (i.e., Michael sustaining a bloody cut on her wheelchair) and very words that they exchange are mystifyingly already in her script.
The above is the set-up for the evening. No spoilers so far. However, in this instance, I find that it is necessary to deviate from my normal practice of not citing "spoilers" in order to elucidate the reasons why Dead Certain is so inept a "psychological thriller."
Once Elizabeth lays out the plot of her play about a quarter of the way into the play, there are no meaningful twists to stimulate us. We do get to see how things play out, but an audience's need and reasonable expectation for further twists is thwarted. The explanation provided for the exactitude of Elizabeth's extant script to events before they transpire is glibly, incoherently and unconvincingly tossed off. The explanation is that Elizabeth has somehow hypnotized Michael, and that he is unknowingly replaying scenes that he has played before. This explanation is risible and reeks of desperation. It is no wonder that author Marcus Lloyd tries to slip it by so lightly and quickly.
There is a dullish repetition inherent to Dead Certain's play within a play motif. Scenes which occur during the play are repeated when the play-within-the-play is "read," then they are discussed ad infinitum, and, in at least one instance, "read" once again.
Worst of all, there is nothing substantial - no dark secret of betrayal or immoral, cruel and/or hateful behavior - on Michael's part to lend shock to the "revelations" or provide sympathy for Elizabeth and her ruse. Only a hopelessly and totality insane person could even begin to blame Michael for her crippling injury. Furthermore, only an almost as irrational Michael would have remained in the house after being given the opportunity to leave such a situation with full payment in hand just after intermission. However, neither Elizabeth nor Michael are written or portrayed as being anything less than rational. Given these facts, the climactic moments of the play (involving those guns) run counter to psychological believability.
At one point, Michael notes that as Elizabeth has set things up, Michael is playing the role of Mick who is playing the role of Nick, and Elizabeth is playing the role of Liza ... etc. It is author Marcus Lloyd's conceit that he has created a Pirandellian puzzle in which "what is real and what is written is no longer clearly defined." Director Eric Hafen would have us note that the author's "underlying theme is the conflict between free will and predestination." One might conjure up such an "underlying" theme for Dead Certain. However, in the context of the insubstantial goings on and the murky, unconvincing motivation of its protagonists, all of this is just so much pretentious hooey.
Given that they are not given consistent, logically motivated characters, Liz Zazzi and Clark Carmichael give lively, theatrically entertaining performances throughout. Zazzi as Elizabeth gets every melodramatic point across as she goes from seductive and charming to bitter and murderous and back with numerous personas emerging in between. As befits the genre, Zazzi does not complicate matters with subtlety. Similarly out there in melodramatic performance, Carmichael's Michael ranges over a wide territory from self satisfied and confident to wounded and murderous.
Director Eric Hafen has delivered the impassioned, heart on its sleeve production that any ephemeral melodramatic mystery requires. Employing decorated screens, bookcases, posts, and even a free standing fireplace, Scenic Designer Bill Motyka has ingeniously and economically created the look of an upper class English house.
More than most, this writer enjoys well constructed, wittily written, tricky mystery plays which have no raison d'être beyond providing easy entertainment. These include several not especially well regarded critically. Even given this, I found the thin, silly and repetitious would-be thriller Dead Certain to be a summer stock style contrivance which wouldn't pass muster in a resort area playhouse during the summer vacation season.
Dead Certain continues performances (Thurs. Sat. 8 p.m./ Sun. 2 p.m.) through June 4, 2006 at the Bickford Theatre at the Morris Museum, 6 Normandy Heights Road, Morristown, NJ 07960; Box Office: 973-971-3706/ online: www.bickfordtheatre.org/
Dead Certain by Marcus Lloyd; directed by Eric Hafen