Ever since I first saw Terence Young’s 1967 film version of Frederick Knott’s 1966 Broadway drama Wait until Dark, it has ridden high on my list of white-knuckle crime thrillers, and I have long awaited a chance to see how the same story plays out on a stage. That opportunity finally arrived last weekend, when the Center for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck opened its CenterStage production of Wait until Dark, directed by Center stalwart Lisa Lynds. You have one more weekend left to catch it yourself.
Audrey Hepburn’s career was riding high at the time that the movie was made, so naturally there is more screentime devoted to her blind heroine Susy than to any of the other characters. And the mobility of movie cameras enabled the filmmakers to depict the plot setup on external locations like an airport instead of having it recounted through verbal exposition, also allowing Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. as Susy’s husband Sam more visibility than the character gets in the play.
The stage version, by contrast, confines the action to a single set. It’s a bit awkward to have the first meeting of three criminals stalking Susy occur right in the couple’s apartment while they’re out for the evening; but that’s where they expect to find a heroin-stuffed doll that Sam unwittingly brought home from a business trip. It’s best not to fuss too much over implausibilities and plot holes (such as Susy’s laxity about locking her apartment door, which made Roger Ebert tear his hair in his review of the movie); just go with the flow. Limiting the play’s action to Susy’s circumscribed world uses the theater space well while setting a much more claustrophobic tone that heightens the gradually building sense of danger.
Wait until Dark is quite a difficult bit of stagecraft to pull off, demanding explicit choreography from the director, exquisite timing from the actors, sound and lighting technicians and impeccable prop placement from the stagehands. The onus is on the actress playing Susy to stumble believably from key object to key object as needed – particularly in her final nervewracking standoff with the main villain, Roat – without for a moment betraying to the audience that she actually can see whatever it is that she’s feeling around for. In this play, MacGuffins are so much more than mere MacGuffins; they are lifelines.
What sets Wait until Dark apart from most other thrillers is the simplicity of its basic plot premise: that a blind person can turn her disability to her advantage by making it impossible for her would-be killer to see as well, relying on the superiority of the other senses that she has honed since losing her sight. Way in advance of our era when “female agency” has become a buzzword in cultural critiques, this play turned the damsel-in-distress trope on its head by letting fragile Susy change the rules in mid-game and go from victim to victor.
The CenterStage production steps up admirably to the show’s challenges, and it’s a real pleasure just to watch the actors move around the stage. Lynds has found her perfect Susy in Jessie Truin, who makes the character’s early gullibility, dawning suspicion and final desperate moves to retake control of her situation all seem believable, along with the fact that she has only gone six months without her sight: just long enough to begin to grasp the potentialities of enhanced focus on hearing and touch. The production consulted a professional rehabilitator from the Northeastern Association of the Blind, and it shows in Truin’s performance.
Among the rest of the cast, the standout is Brian Kubsch, portraying Talman, an ex-con who gets drawn into Roat’s murderous plot against his inclination. Talman begins to feel some sympathy and admiration for Susy even as he carefully and inventively plays out his “good cop” part in the three-way con job intended to get her to hand over the doll. It’s the most nuanced role in the play, and Kubsch conveys its shadings skillfully and persuasively.
Like Alan Arkin, who played him in the movie version back in the days when most audiences didn’t expect villains to be multidimensional, Michael Frohnhoefer does a bit too much scenery-chewing as the vain and sadistic Roat. But that’s how the part is written; and Frohnhoefer does exhibit a knack for doing different voices in scenes where he fools Susy (temporarily) into thinking that someone else has arrived. The third prong of the ill-intentioned triad, Carlino, seems oddly dense – aren’t con men supposed to be able to think on their feet? – but John Adair manages the slightly comedic role well.
The cast also includes Kevin McCarthy as Sam, Peter Pius in a brief appearance as a policeman and Ellie DeMan and Julia Osterhoudt alternating as Gloria, the bratty-but-resourceful little girl in the apartment next door who has borrowed the doll. Special kudos belong to all the techies whose care and attention to detail make this tricky puzzle work onstage, notably technical director/lighting and sound designer Dave Popieluszko and light-board operator Patrick McGriff. To get to the real meat of Wait until Dark, you literally do have to wait until the stage goes dark. And yes, even if you’ve seen the movie, that big “Boo!” moment will still make you jump, because you won’t be looking in the right place.
Performances of Wait until Dark continue this weekend, beginning at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, November 27 and 28 and at 3 p.m. on Sunday, November 29. Tickets cost $24 and $22, and can be purchased by calling (845) 876-3080 or visiting https://www.centerforperformingarts.org.