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Regional Reviews by Gil Benbrook

Wait Until Dark
Mesa Encore Theatre

Also see Gil's reviews of Venus in Fur, Good People and Les MisÚrables


Playwright Frederick Knott has had a fairly good year in the Phoenix community theatre world this season, with his two famous thrillers receiving impressive productions. After a suspenseful production of Dial M For Murder at Desert Stages Theatre in Scottsdale a few months back, now comes an equally chilling Wait Until Dark as the last show of the season in Mesa Encore Theatre's inaugural "Black Box on Brown" series of plays.

Set in a basement apartment in 1960s Greenwich Village, Wait Until Dark is the story of blind Susy Hendrix and her unfortunate encounter with three criminals. Susy's husband Sam innocently brought a doll to New York from Canada as a favor for a woman he met at the airport. The woman said the doll was for a sick girl and that someone would come to his apartment to pick it up. Sam and Susy have no idea that the doll is stuffed with heroin; that the person who was picking up the doll has been murdered; or that a sociopathic killer and two small time, recently paroled, con artists are planning to do whatever necessary to get the doll. Disguising themselves as various, seemingly harmless characters, the three men work their way into Susy's apartment, searching for the doll, literally right in front of her. Knott deftly uses Susy's blindness as a perfect theatrical conceit to raise the chills several notches, since the audience sees the deceitful and horrific events unfolding that Susy can not. Even with a few holes in the plot, and situations that seem unfathomable today (including Sam unquestionably transporting the doll across the border for someone he's just met and Susy's continual habit of letting strangers through her door) the play still makes for a gripping theatrical endeavor.

The Mesa Encore cast is up to the challenges, with an impressive Emily Lynne Baker as Susy. She easily gets across a woman who is somewhat demure at first, but, after realizing what is going on around her, ratchets up her defenses so as not to become a victim herself. Since Susy has only been blind for a year, due to an accident, and is still learning how to deal with her condition, it makes sense that Baker plays her as a bit frantic. Baker also realistically never strays from the blank gaze she continually casts to represent Susy's blindness.

As the three thieves, Todd Michael Isaac, Don Crosby and Charlie LeSueur provide nice, varied portrayals of the con-men, though Isaac as Harry Roat, Jr., is the only one you truly believe could actually do any harm to Susy. Isaac displays a level of menace and rage underneath his character, ready to boil up at any moment, and provides several suspenseful moments, especially toward the end of the play when Harry becomes truly terrifying. Crosby makes his character more of a bumbling, neurotic man, which, while less frightening, adds a few humorous moments to the evening. LeSueur, meanwhile, plays the one thief with the most range, as well as the only one of the three who begins to feel some remorse for what he is doing to Susy. LeSueur, through concerned looks and the character's sincere treatment of Susy, is exceptional at showing us a crook who, through hard time and a chance encounter with a woman like Susy, has seen the error of his ways.

Also in the cast is Lilly Monet Brandt, who does nicely as Gloria, the young girl who lives above Susy and Sam. Brandt effectively gets across a young girl who, while often sneaking into the apartment without Susy noticing and playing tricks on her, is eager and unafraid to help. Michael Sean LeSueur (Charlie LeSueur's nephew) has the distinction of appearing in both Knott plays this season. While he is serviceable here in the small role of Susy's husband Sam, he was much better in the meatier role of the killer in the Dial M production.

Director Matthew T. Crosby is fairly successful with his staging, including nice use of the entire width of the Black Box on Brown stage along with getting nuanced performances from his cast. However, he should instruct Brandt to project a bit more, as even in the small space some of her lines are completely missed. Also, Isaac pronounces "Greenwich Village" as "Green-Witch" and not "Grin-itch"—anyone who has spent any time in New York City, as Issac's character has, would clearly know how to correctly pronounce that location.

Crosby and Brett Aiken's set design is effective. The series of doors, a few pieces of furniture and a realistic kitchenette are all of the set pieces necessary for the action to unfold. JennAfer Sankar's lighting design provides the appropriate thrill-inducing moments, including several in practically total darkness. No costume designer is credited in the program, so I'm not sure who decided to have the majority of the characters appear in mostly modern clothing and footwear, which doesn't quite work with the 1960s dialogue and situations in the plot. There are also some props that clearly are too modern, including a digital clock that factors somewhat into the plot. While these don't detract entirely from the good work on stage, when they are added to a few of the holes in Knott's plot, they make the entire endeavor just a bit less successful.

While both of Knott's plays are probably better known for their screen adaptations, experiencing them live, with the thrilling events unfolding in front of you, is something that can't be matched on the big screen. Even with a few small missteps, there are still plenty of jolts, thrills and suspense, along with a fairly impressive cast in the Mesa Encore Theatre's production of Wait Until Dark.

Wait Until Dark runs through May 10th, 2014, with performances at the Mesa Encore Theatre's Black Box on Brown theatre located at 318 E Brown Rd #101, Mesa, AZ 85201. To order tickets, and for information on upcoming productions at Mesa Encore Theatre visit mesaencoretheatre.com.

Director: Matthew T. Crosby
Producing Director: Brett Aiken
Stage Manager, Lighting Design, Box Office: JennAfer Sankar
Set Design/Construction: Matthew T. Crosby, Brett Aiken
Sound Design: JennAfer Sankar, Chris Peterson
Props Design: JennAfer Sankar, Brett Aiken, Matthew T. Crosby
Cast:
Susy Hendrix: Emily Lynne Baker
Harry Roat, Jr.: Todd Michael Isaac
Mike Talman: Charlie LeSueur
Sgt. Carlino: Don Crosby
Gloria: Lilly Monet Brandt
Sam Hendrix: Michael Sean LeSueur

--Gil Benbrook


Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for Phoenix



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