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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at the Irish Repertory Theatre

By Robert L. Daniels

  Laura Odeh and David Staller/Ph: Carol Rosegg

"What are you doing, Bella?" "Why are you so apprehensive, Bella?" "What do you suppose the servants are for, Bella?" "Bella, my dear, do you have any idea where that picture is now?" Those are but a handful of the many gnawing questions posed by the insidious Jack Manningham to his impressionably timid young wife. The play is Gaslight, a timeless Victorian thriller by Patrick Hamilton, currently rattling the boards at the Irish Repertory Theatre.

The play is not really a mystery as the villain is revealed at the start of the action. Nor is the play as puzzling as Anthony Shaffer's Sleuth, or Frederick Knott's Dial M for Murder. What really surfaces is a dandy dose of keenly crafted suspense. It's a stylish old fashioned melodrama, that occasionally creaks at the joints, despite brittle conversational dialogue that commands alertness and attention.

Manningham is a classic villain who attempts to drive his pliantly pert young wife insane. He also diappears for nightly excursions to the attic where he searches for the jewels of a deceased "old lady of great wealth and decided eccentricities." Scotland Yard comes to the rescue in the person of Inspector Rough, who attempts to convince a terrified Mrs. Manningham that she is married to a murderer.

The most appealing performance comes from Brian Murray as the whimsical inspector. Murray's somewhat dotty retired gumshoe reveals the insidious menace that challenges the timid Bella. His bluff and hearty thrust is expressively amusing, and there is that classic moment when he returns from a hiding place to retrieve his hat, right behind the villains back.

While she doesn't exactly set the heart to pounding, Laura Odeh is brittle, tense and impressionable as the wife on tenterhooks. A bearded David Staller offers a rather stagey take of the suavely sinister husband. While certainly smarmy enough, he lacks a real sense of menace.

There is a nice assist by Patricia O' Connell as a skittish housekeeper and a foxy Laoisa Sexton as a seductive maid.

Director Charlotte Moore has invested the musty parlor puzzler with a sturdy sense of balance that reveals both a teasing sense of suspense and a heady dose of tongue-in-check humor.

For the record, the play originally opened in London in 1938 under the two-word title Gas Light and made its Broadway debut two days before the attack on Pearl Harbor as Angel Street, with Vincent Price ( establishing a demonic flair that served his entire career), Judith Evelyn and Leo G. Carroll. It was filmed twice. Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynyard starred in the 1939 British original, and it was remade by MGM in 1944 with an Oscar-winning performance by Ingrid Bergman. Her co-stars were Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotten, and in her film debut, a fetching Angela Lansbury as the cockney maid.

A less than successful revival turned up in 1978, starring Dina Merrill and Michael Allinson, and introducing Christine Andreas to Broadway audiences in the role of the saucy servant girl.

There's an interesting postscript to the history of the play. Jack Benny and Barbara Stanwyck appeared in a classic CBS television parody in 1959. The skit was delayed for five years by litigation that went to the Supreme Court.


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