The cell phone may well be the third-greatest invention of the past fifty years, right after the home computer and the Internet.  Most of us look back at the pre-cellular 1980s (and before) and think, “How did we ever survive without them?” On the other hand, it’s fortunate indeed for lovers of classic stage thrillers that playwright Frederick Knott lived most of his life in a mostly cell phone-free 20th Century.  How could Knott have written 1952’s Dial M For Murder had Margot Wendice had a cell phone in her purse or pocket?  1966’s Wait Until Dark is even harder to imagine in a cell phone age. Knott’s thriller about a blind New York City newlywed targeted by a trio of thugs in search of a heroin-filled doll they believe to be hidden somewhere in her walk-down flat is absolutely dependent on there being only one land-line phone in the apartment and a (now virtually non-existent) phone booth on a nearby corner.

Thankfully, Wait Until Dark stands up very well indeed as a 1960s period piece, its many revivals a testament to Knott’s skill at devising fiendishly convoluted thrillers. The current Hermosa Beach Playhouse is the fifth Wait Until Dark I’ve seen since 2003, and under Stephanie A Coltrin’s snappy direction, proves to be one of the most enjoyable so far.  My plus-one for the evening was seeing Knott’s thriller with virgin eyes, and declared it the very best Hermosa Beach production of the four or five he’s seen.

Since my guest is surely not the only person seeing Wait Until Dark for the very first time, I’ll try to keep synopsizing to a minimum in order to avoid spoiling the many surprises the suspense classic holds in store for its newbies.

Professional criminal Harry Roat (Michael Mullen) has reason to believe that a heroin-filled doll is hidden inside the apartment of photographer Sam Hendrix (Dane Biren) and his wife Susy (Kimberly Patterson). It seems that Sam brought the doll across the Canadian-U.S. border as a favor to a woman he happened to meet at the airport, and in order to get his hands on it, Roat enlists the help of a pair of ex-cons, “Mike Talman” (Leland Burnett) and “Sergeant Carlino” (Jeremy Ordaz).

Roat’s plan is a complicated one, involving Mike’s posing as an old friend of Sam’s, Carlino’s impersonating a New York police detective, and Roat’s assuming a pair of disguises.  All of this is contingent on Susy’s being home alone, the crooks’ being able to take advantage of her blindness (which they see as a weakness), and a lack of cellular technology. Wait Until Dark gets its title from its most famous scene, the one in which its blind damsel-in-distress finds herself trapped in her apartment with a vicious murderer and decides to even the odds by placing not only herself but also the killer (and the audience) in pitch blackness.

Patterson, cited by StageSceneLA as Best Actress In A Leading Role (Comedy) for her work in Hermosa Beach Playhouse’s Blithe Spirit and Sylvia, proves her dramatic mettle here, the initially calm-and-collected Susy becoming more and more frightened and frazzled as she realizes just how much danger she is in. Though occasionally maneuvering around her apartment a tad quicker than I think a blind woman would, even in a familiar space, in all other ways Patterson is totally convincing as a sightless woman in mortal fear for her life.

Casting Mullen as Mr. Roat was a stroke of genius for director Coltrin.  StageSceneLA Best Of 2008-9 Featured Actor honoree Mullen is a master of multiple-character acting, a feat he demonstrated to perfection in Sylvia and Porcelain. Whether dressed up as Harry Roat, Sr. or Harry Jr., or sans disguise as the killer, Mullen creates three distinct characters, and when playing “the real Roat,” he is downright creepy … and scary as hell.

A younger than usual Mike and Carlino give Burnett and Ordaz a chance to show off their acting chops as well. Burnett is convincing as a genuinely good guy coerced into doing bad things, and Ordaz, memorable in HBP’s Tracers a couple years ago, makes you believe that his character has really gotten “into” impersonating an officer and doing a good job of it. Kailey Swanson, recently in Big The Musical, is a terrific Gloria, the pre-teen neighbor girl Susy enlists in her efforts to triumph over evil.  Dane Biren makes for a likeable Sam, Susy’s husband who is (conveniently) away for the day.  Fortunately, after Biren’s brief but nicely-performed scene early in Act One, the young actor can spend backstage time keeping Michael Chubb and Timothy Bell company.  Chubb (Policeman # 1) and Bell (Policeman # 2) do good work in two of the most thankless roles ever written for the stage, appearing in a truly eleventh-hour blink-and-you-miss it scene acted in almost pitch darkness.  (You guys have paid your dues and deserve starring roles next time!)

I’ve not seen a better Wait Until Dark set than the one designed here by Christopher Beyries, with its ceiling-level windows giving glimpses of feet walking along the street above, pipes coming out of the walls, a 1960s refrigerator and stacked washer-dryer, etc. Topnotch lighting is a must for a successful Wait Until Dark, and Ric Zimmerman’s is topnotch indeed, light seemingly coming only from the lamps in the Hendrix apartment—until the final scene which is played in pitch darkness.  Kevin Goold’s sound design is absolute perfection, from his choice of suspenseful background music at appropriate moments to the ringing of a phone and the offstage smashing of light bulbs to a faint, steady hum which adds to a feeling of impending danger. 1960s properties by Nicole Wessel and costumes by Christa Armendariz are equally fine.

Fans of classic stage thrillers are hereby advised that Hermosa Beach Playhouse productions run a brief two weeks, with only about a half-dozen more chances to catch this one. Wait Until Dark is a winner, and not to be missed.

Hermosa Beach Playhouse, 170 Pier Avenue, Pacific Coast Highway, Hermosa Beach.

–Steven Stanley
November 10, 2009
Photos: Alysa Brennan

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