This month, Theatre in the Round and Gremlin Theatre are providing Twin Cities thriller fans with the opportunity to see two of classic crime writer Frederick Knott's three plays.
Theatre In the Round
Gremlin is staging a strong production of Dial M for Murder (1952), while Theatre in the Round mounts Jeffrey Hatcher's 2013 adaptation of Wait Until Dark (1966).
Both plays turn on the unexpected ingenuity of a heroine targeted by scheming men. The satisfaction of seeing women fight back against villains who take them for defenseless marks is one of the reasons these plays have remained perennially popular. Still, even in Hatcher's update, Wait Until Dark is problematic.
Susan (Heather Burmeister) is a young woman who was blinded in a car accident. ("They were able to fix everything but the headlights.") Her photographer husband Sam (Parker Shook) has been called away for the day on a sham shoot set up by two hoods (Christopher J. DeVaan and Andy Schnabel) who concoct an elaborate plan to dupe Susan into revealing the location of the play's MacGuffin: a musical doll, the significance of which we quickly guess.
The crooks expect that Susan will be alone and defenseless, but in fact her apartment turns into a virtual Grand Central Station: besides the bad guys coming and going, one of Sam's old war buddies (Ryan D. Maddux) stops in, and there are regular visits from Gloria, a cheeky girl (Alex Abdelwahed) who lives upstairs and helps Susan with chores.
Knott had a knack for dispensing a lot of exposition in a way that almost, but never quite, ran ahead of the audience's ability to keep up. Beyond knowing the crucial fact that Susan is being had, we largely follow along with her as she tries to puzzle out what's going on with a strangely assiduous "police investigation" of a nearby murder, seemingly pointing to her own husband as a prime suspect.
There's no getting around the whiff of exploitation in using a disability as a key plot device, but Hatcher's script makes Susan a three-dimensional character who's far from defined by her sightlessness even though it supports the play's central premise. Burmeister is a warmly human presence at the show's center; she's winningly witty and generous-minded, while not so generous that she can't smell a rat, or so saintlike that she doesn't struggle to tolerate the troubled Gloria.
Director Alissa J. Blaeser and set designer Devyn Becker inventively adapt Theatre in the Round's distinctive 360-degree space for a play that requires a lot of shadowy stage business. Although the men's performances aren't up to Burmeister's, the show is busy enough that the gap isn't too glaring until the final confrontation, when DeVaan struggles to summon a properly threatening mien.
Knott's clever plotting makes it impossible not to be drawn in by Wait Until Dark, and Hatcher accentuates some nuances that add psychological depth. Still, watching the play in 2018 might leave you thinking it's time for another rewrite: this time with a female playwright examining what it means for Susan to be constantly encircled by predatory men who feel entitled to her property, her body, and even the food in her icebox. As the #MeToo movement has made plain, you don't need a crime writer to dream up that premise.
IF YOU GO:
Wait Until Dark
Theatre in the Round
245 Cedar Ave., Minneapolis
Through September 30; 612-333-3010
Theatre In the Round