Alan Ayckbourn’s Snake In The Grass is a real change of pace for the “British Neil Simon.”  Famed for his clever comedies (Absurd Person Singular, The Norman Conquests, Bedroom Farce), the prolific (at nearly 70 he still averages 2 to 3 plays a year) writer tries his hand at a dark comedy/thriller here and succeeds admirably at darkness, comedy, and thrills.

At lights up we meet Annabel Chester (Pamela Salem), stylish, middle-aged, with the air of a no-nonsense business executive. Annie, who has just returned to England after spending fifteen years in Tasmania, is outdoors on the grounds of the family home when a mousy brunette arrives. The nondescript woman is Alice Moody (Nicola Bertram), formerly nurse to Annie’s recently deceased father, who has come to speak with Annie about a “serious matter.” Several weeks ago, it seems, Annie’s younger sister Miriam chose to “dispense with” Alice’s services, claiming that she was “unpunctual, neglectful, unreliable, and undependable.”  Not true, insists Alice. She was fired after discovering that Miriam was trying to kill her father by doubling, even tripling the dosage of his medication, and that Miriam had pushed dear old Dad down the stairs. Fat lot of good it did her, as Mr. Chester had recently altered his will in Annie’s favor.  Nurse Miriam demands £100,000 of the fortune Annie has inherited, as payback for having her reputation “tarnished” by this “wrongful dismissal.” Alice will be back later, she says, and she wants Annie’s decision by then.

Following Alice’s departure, Miriam (Claire Jacobs) arrives, and she is, as she describes herself, a mess, the victim of a tyrannical father who made her life hell all the years that Annie lived a far-away life free from family ties.  “Did you double, triple the dosage?” asks Annie.  “A little bit more,” admits a sheepish Miriam.  “Did you push him?” demands the elder sister. “Only a little push,” protests Miriam. “It was an accident!”

Regardless of whether Miriam is guilty or innocent of murder, Annie doesn’t have anywhere near the sum that the nurse is demanding, she claims, and determines to pay her a mere £5000.

A few hours later, the bickering sisters have already quarreled three times about some new curtains in the house…and the size of eggs. Declares Annie, “We are what we are. I’m selfish and you’re stupid.”  Miriam has more serious matters on her mind, though, such as the likelihood of dying without ever having been loved … and getting rid of the blackmailing nurse … forever. Conveniently, the porch leading to the summer house has a trap door beneath which sits a thirty-foot deep well, and if someone were to fall down it, or be pushed …  Well, that might just solve all their problems, except perhaps for Annie’s heart trouble, which seems to be acting up now that’s she’s back home.

That’s as much plot as you’ll get from this review.

Suffice it to say that like Sleuth and Death Trap, there will be twists and turns and several surprises. There will also be the most thrilling/chilling “danger in the dark” sequence since Wait Until Dark, in this case a second act that takes place outside at night with only two small kerosene lamps to illuminate the obscurity, creepy sounds emanating from the adjacent tennis court, and at least one very frightened sister.

Ayckbourn’s script is devilishly clever…and funny, and if there are holes in the logic, no matter. The fun is in being scared…and at the same time amused by this trio of slightly “off” characters. He also probes more deeply than might be expected into the psyches of the two sisters, as they recount to each other traumatic past experiences which have left them both scarred.

Snake In The Grass marks the second production of the recently founded Salem K Theatre Co., a unique addition to our stage scene. The company is being sponsored by gazillionaire philanthropist Rajen Kilachand, and forgoes the usual 99-seat plan to actually pay its actors, and the bucks are more than evident in Laura Fine Hawkes’ gorgeously conceived and executed scenic design: artificial grass that looks real, strewn with real leaves; realistic stone cobbles; a solidly constructed gazebo-like porch, with a heavy trap door that shuts with a loud thud; chain link fence surrounding an unseen tennis court, and more.  Eric Snodgrass’ sound design incorporates chirping birds, voices in the night, and other mood-setting effects.  Hal Lindes has composed original music that blends finger-snapping cool jazz into a suspense-enhancing background score. May Routh’s costumes let us know just what kind of women we’re observing.

The lighting is by Leigh Allen, who recently won the L.A. Drama Critics’ Circle Angstrom Award for career achievement in lighting design.  Strangely enough, this is only the second production I’ve seen with a Leigh Allen design, but if this one is any indication, she was a most deserving winner. Sunlight that looks like real sunlight, gradually fading to dusk that feels like real dusk.  Night that looks and feels like night, with only those two small lamps to shine dimly on the sisters’ faces.

Much of the credit for the “look” of the production must go to director Mark Rosenblatt, who clearly has an eye for the visual. He is somewhat less successful with the performances in the first act, which suffer at times from a lack of spontaneity and a number of stumbled-over lines, perhaps the result of not having had quite enough rehearsal time, though Jacobs is very good indeed as the dotty, frumpy, emotionally unstable Miriam, and there can be no complaint about the British accents, as all three actresses are from the U.K.  The cast fares considerably better in the suspenseful second act, with Salem effectively conveying Annie’s terror and Jacobs making us see another (and altogether creepy) side of Miriam.

I missed Salem K’s first production, Poor Beast In The Rain, but I heard great things about it.  Though Snake In The Grass may not get the unqualified raves that the initial production did, it’s well worth seeing, especially for the edge-of-your-seat second act.  Completing their first season will be a world premiere production,  Boise, USA.  It is to be hoped that Mr. Kilachand’s generosity will continue, and that there will be many more seasons of Salem K productions to brighten our Los Angeles stage scene.

Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
April 10, 2008
Photos: Michael Lamont

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