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Symphony of Suspense

TheatreWorks lights the lamps with Angel Street



I'm not sure I have any idea what it means for a day to be so yellow that it is advisable to stay indoors. I think it's a London fog kind of thing. But after seeing Angel Street's opening scene, with a Victorian-era woman standing pensive and concerned in a dark room, bathed in the yellow light gathering at the curtains she holds back from the window, I begin to form a definition that works wonderfully over the course of this taut suspense thriller.

From that opening scene, which foreshadows the essential quality of lighting in the Manningham home and mixes in an overpowering score with a finely tuned performance from Jane Fromme, the audience is tangled in an aura of suspense as thick as the London fog that distorts perceptions and clouds our vision of the world before us.

Angel Street is an old-fashioned thriller, psychological at its core. It was originally written for the stage in the '30s and is familiar to some as the basis for the movie Gaslight. It's hard to imagine a playwright taking such a conventional approach to laying out a mystery for an audience these days, but the play need not be seen as a relic. The further the theater goes in pushing its boundaries, exploding its form and structure, the more aware we become that the best stories are still those that immerse themselves in the unexplored terrain of the human psyche.

The play's atmosphere of tension is established as Mrs. Manningham moves about her 1880s sitting room, interacting with one of the house's two servants, trying not to disturb her husband. When he awakes, the sense of worrisome expectation is heightened throughout a long interchange in which the characters speak without ever looking at each other, revealing volumes in the averted glances. We are alternatively brought through sickeningly sweet moments of release juxtaposed against tight-wire tension that leaves the characters and audience at the point of snapping.

Throughout the first third of the play, we are limited to the Manninghams and their servants as the source of our understanding of the reality of this home on Angel Street. The production's biggest flaw is the heavy-handed approach that this crucial opening scene takes to establish the two principal characters. Though Fromme is exquisitely conflicted and can easily lead the audience to question her sanity, her husband comes across as too easily pigeon-holed.

Tom Paradise's Mr. Manningham is a wonderful villain in his capacity as a patronizing, manipulative and insensitive husband. Director Rob Urbinati lets Paradise dwell in the one-dimensional realm of what contemporary audiences recognize as an abusive husband, denying us any chance to be misled or confused about where our allegiances should lie. Once the third principal character, Inspector Rough, enters the scene, our own involvement in actively unraveling the mystery is forfeited and we are at the mercy of the play's exposition. Clarity bursts on the scene with the arrival of Christopher Lowell's bright and comic Sergeant Rough, and things are essentially as they seem from that point on.

The wonder of Angel Street is its ability to keep the audience in an unrelieved state of apprehension, even when the plot seems predictable. Urbinati shows his mastery at orchestrating the tension, making it as real as any character, palpable and overwhelming in its persistence.

But just as effective as the original treatment of a textbook suspense story is the subtext of the relationship between the married couple. While there is an element of honest-to-goodness murderous treachery played out over the course of the play, it isn't hard to see the psychological torture as a metaphorical manifestation of the struggle two characters endure as they try to determine their identities in the relationship. There is something archaic about the structure and style of the story, but that merely underscores the potential for resonance in a horrifying view of domestic imbalance.

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