Also see Sharon's review of The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler
Here's what I'm looking for out of a thriller: I want to be taken in. I want to be trying my best to outthink the playwright, but ultimately be surprised by the play. It doesn't have to surprise me all the way through. In fact, some of the best thrillers are the ones where I think I've figured out the play, only to be hit at the end by a great little "gotcha!" that I wasn't expecting. That's a great thriller - when you think you've been a step ahead of the play all along, but really, it's been a step ahead of you.
It's a hard task, and Bruce Kimmel's new play, Deceit, isn't quite up to it. Most of the twists in the play are fairly predictable. To be sure, some members of the opening night audience did respond with gasps of surprise in a few places, but the shock was far from universal.
Much of the problem seems to come from the fact that Deceit is a three character play (a fact which is made apparent when you look at the show's program). In a fixed universe of only three characters, only a limited number of options can present themselves. If you are totally sucked into the universe of the play and don't really think about it as a piece of theatre with three people in it, you may not anticipate the shocks. But if you find yourself thinking, as I did several times, "Hey, why isn't this play over, after what just happened?" you'll start considering options - and given the small number of people you're dealing with, the odds are that you'll reach the same conclusion Kimmel did, and you'll reach it before the play gets there.
The solution, for a small play like Deceit, is for it to be so fast-paced and engrossing that it never gives you the opportunity to think about it. If Deceit is going to deceive, it needs to be tightened. The intermission has to be removed, and the action of the second act shortened substantially. As a quick little one act, the audience would not be able to use the fact that "there's more play left" as a reason to start thinking there are more twists coming. And if the characters cut down on their lengthy explanations for their actions and just did them, the audience wouldn't have time to get ahead of the play.
The plot - as much of it as can be safely revealed - centers around Kate, a young widow living in New York. One night, Kate is visited by Michael, her late husband's best friend from before their marriage. The first act is dominated by their conversation - Michael and Kate exchange memories of Jeffrey, the man they had in common. They also discuss their own pasts, and even flirt a little with each other. Tammy Minoff's Kate is a perky, cheerful, rambling sort of talker. Michael, portrayed by Matthew Ashford, has a stronger delivery, but with an odd melodic lilt to his voice. The script explains the lilt as a relic from time Michael has spent in England, but there's nothing particularly British about it - it just sounds odd and a little distracting.
Minoff and Ashford are both substantially better with their non-verbal performances. When Michael has a lengthy speech near the end of act one, Kate's reaction is clear on her face. Minoff doesn't have to say a word for us to know what Kate is thinking. Ashford also is given a sizeable chunk of script in which he says nothing, and is mesmerizing in it. Kimmel, who also directed, wisely has Ashford take his time with the silent scene, and it's an intense bit of theatre. Deceit needs more moments like this, where the audience is so breathlessly involved in the action, there isn't time to think about what's happening next.
Deceit runs through February 19, 2006 at the El Portal Forum Theatre in North Hollywood. For tickets and information, see www.deceittheplay.com.
The Kritzerland Theatre Company presents Deceit. Set Design Matt Scarpino; Lighting Design Craig Housenick; Costume Design Beth Morgan; Associate Producer Susan Marino; Assistant Director Leslie Stallone; Casting Director Geralyn Flood; Production Stage Manager Dale Alan Cooke; Marketing and Publicity David Elzer/DEMAND PR. Produced by Missy Becker. Written and Directed by Bruce Kimmel.
Cast: (in alphabetical order)