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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Lee Godart and Keith Carradine.
Photo by Aaron Epstein.

You only need to know one thing before seeing Anthony Horowitz's thriller Mindgame at the Soho Playhouse: Don't blink.

For once, this is not hyperbole. Under the brilliantly misdirecting direction of film director Ken Russell (who's making his Off-Broadway debut), and played on Beowulf Boritt's astounding set, this is one production in which every second really does count. Whisper to your neighbor, glance down at your program, or merely let your mind wander, and you might not recognize the lay of the stage when you return your focus to it. And catching up again will not be easy.

Russell and Boritt, and to a lesser extent lighting designer Jason Lyons, costume designer Melissa Bruning, and sound designer Bernard Fox, have fashioned the most exacting production that any play (and most any musical) in New York has seen in years. The walls, the floor, the doors, and even the furniture are subject to their establishers' faintest whims, with new shocks materializing (and dissolving) at a rate that threatens to violate several key laws of physics.

The problem for any critic, though, is knowing what can be revealed about all this that won't give away the most delightful and energizing jolts. Because everything is important and nothing is immutable, to divulge anything about anything feels like a violation of a sacred pact, with the creators as well as with potential audience members. So all I'll say at this juncture is that in this production, what could be (and probably should be) the most sedate and stodgy locale imaginable - a doctor's office at a mental institution - is vital and alive, as though it's doing everything it can to spin you off its axis.

Unfortunately, it has to. What can and must be said about Mindgame as a piece of writing is that it can't live up to all this magic. If Horowitz hadn't constructed it as a vehicle for just this kind of auteur-ready staging, it would be elaborately unremarkable in every way. Concerning a celebrated author named Mark Styler (Lee Godart) who visits one Dr. Farquhar (Keith Carradine) at the Fairfields hospital for the insane, and ending with the usual questions about what sanity actually is and how you know if you have it, this is not a play brimming with fresh ideas.

Keith Carradine Kathleen McKenny.
Photo by Aaron Epstein.

Nor is any amount of violence, implied (a lot) or presented outright (somewhat less), enough to transform this dull-witted outing into a chill-inducing wellspring of psychological horror. The bloodiest, most ostensibly tense moments joined the daffy dialogue - usually between Styler and Farquhar, but also sometimes involving a third character, Nurse Plimpton (Kathleen McKenny) - and demented developments of plot in provoking a lot of laughter at the performance I attended - seldom, it seemed to me, for any of the right reasons.

Horowitz's convoluted storyline can absorb all these idiosyncrasies and more. But the wild inconsistencies of tone make it impossible to absorb the show independent of its staging. In one scene a densely written clinical diatribe, in the next a harrowing melodrama, and later still a black-and-white Friday fright flick, events cover too much ground on too small a scale to resonate as a good moral lesson, a good scare, or even a good yarn. Worse still, the necessary surprises themselves are so creaky, I predicted the ultimate outcome within the first 15 minutes of Act I - the full running time is almost two and a half hours.

Carradine and McKenny must navigate the widest expanses of character, and do so to the utmost of their skills - McKenny presents a deliciously different personality in each of her appearances that somehow all cohere into a complete person, while Carradine's development is more subtle and gradual. Godart is less successful at outlining his character's calamitous transformation, but as his role is the most unforgiving and the most prosaically written, his failure to make something tangible out of the reality-defying Styler does not rest on his shoulders alone.

His own trouble and that of the show are far more complex than the sum of their parts. True, Horowitz's tangled narrative is never as clever as it thinks it is, but Russell and Boritt could themselves well be accused of overcompensating, making the show far more of a show than it should be. If not for those inventions, most of which you observe via the corner of your eye, this play might be seen more easily as the brandy-spiked trifle it is - but because they can't be overlooked, a mild curiosity becomes a must-see. Even if you hate yourself in the morning, it's hard to overdose on Mindgame's mind candy.

SoHo Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street (6th Ave & Varick / 7th Avenue)
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: SoHo Playhouse

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