Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Also see Gil's recent review of Seussical
Holmes' play centers on the successful but self-centered billionaire, Richard Jannings, who lives alone in a fortress of a building with high-tech video cameras, locks and doors, where he works on writing his memoirs. His self-imposed self-isolation may mean that no one ever comes into his rooms and that he often talks to himself, but he still communicates with his staff via video conferencing and receives high-end specially prepared meals from an on-site chef in the kitchen below his dwellings via a dumbwaiter. Jannings' wealth and status also make him a target for kidnapping or murder, and when a stranger manages to break into his inner sanctum, with the plan to murder Jannings, it sets in motion a cat and mouse game between Jannings and his killer that is full of twists and turns.
Though Solitary Confinement is more of a comical thriller in the vein of The 39 Steps rather than a straight-out thriller and the supporting characters we see on the video screen are often humorous, the events that unfold on stage between Jannings and his killer are full of tension and intrigue, keeping the audience on their toes in guessing who the killer is and what will happen next. However, while Holmes updated his original 1992 script in 2016 and also made further updates specifically for this production (the technology in the show now features FaceTime calls and Jannings playing Wii golf), it is still a bit convoluted and confusing in parts. For example, I'm not exactly sure what the motivation is for Jannings' murder. And even though it only runs a little over two hours, including the intermission, there is a lot of odd exposition in act one where Jannings is ranting about various things, including bombing Amsterdam because tulips and wooden shoes are the only things they are known for.
Fortunately, director David Barker, star Ben Tyler, and set designer Peter J. Hill have created a production that often soars, even if the script sometimes threatens to pull them back down to earth. Tyler is superb as Jannings. Even though Jannings is an unlikable character, Holmes' writing makes you concerned for his well-being and Tyler's performance makes you sympathetic toward him. Tyler creates a fully fleshed-out, three-dimensional character with eccentric idiosyncrasies, and you can often see why his employees may not like working for him since he's often short with them and condescending as well. While all of the individuals he speaks to are on pre-recorded video or audio, Tyler manages to bring a large sense of realism to these conversations. Only a few times at the opening night performance I attended were there any small glitches during these moments, either due to rushed or delayed dialogue by Tyler, where the response from the character on the video wasn't in sync with Tyler. I have to imagine after a few performances these conversations will come across as natural as Tyler's portrayal. Tyler also appears to be having a smashing good time on stage under Barker's clear and concise direction.
Peter J. Hill's set is excellent. While this production is being presented in Fountain Hills' smaller Mainstage Too! Theater venue, the intimacy of the space draws the audience into the show and also gives you the ability to see up close the assortment of items that Hill and props designer Patty Torrilhon has placed in Jannings' study as well as the rich details of the set. Ross Collins' sound and lighting design provides some nice chills and the videography by Allison Hacker works quite well to bring the pre-recorded video conversations to life, as does the varied and character-appropriate costumes by Noel Irick.
There are many revelations in the show that I've avoided mentioning, but I'll simply add that during the curtain call the audience at opening night (myself included) was highly enthusiastic, while also shocked and even surprised, at some of the things that were revealed in the final moments of the show.
Solitary Confinement runs through September 4, 2022, at Fountain Hills Theater, 11445 N. Saguaro Blvd., Fountain Hills AZ. Information on tickets can be found at www.fhtaz.org or by calling 480-837-9661.
Director: David Barker