Things do considerably more than merely go bump in the night when Greg and Jan Sanderson leave the big city for life in a haunted country farmhouse in I’ll Be Back Before Midnight, Peter Colley’s Gaslight-meets-Deathtrap suspense thriller now getting a shriek-a-minute Los Angeles Premiere at Burbank’s Colony Theatre.

midnightlobby4 It turns out the countryside is the last place Jan (Joanna Strapp) would choose to be post hospitalization for a recent nervous breakdown, and hardly the right spot to rekindle a marriage gone sour. Still, a husband as strong-willed as archaeologist Greg (Tyler Pierce) is a hard man to say no to, and so, now, here they are with only a wood-burning stove to keep out the chill and a faulty electrical system prone to breaking down the very second the night turns dark and stormy.

Making matters worse are the ghost stories gleefully spun by their grizzly bear of a neighbor George (Ron Orbach), tales of a horrendous murder that took place in the very farmhouse Jan and Greg now call home and of a ghost George claims comes out at night to terrify whoever happens to have rented the home where he met his bloody fate.

midnightlobby3 And as if this weren’t already enough to send Jan tout de suite back to the sanatorium, who should show up on their doorstep but Greg’s beautiful, imperious sister Laura (Kate Maher), invited by her brother to keep Jan company, or so he insists, though the mere mention Laura’s name seems likely to provoke Jan’s permanent return to the loony bin.

Can you spell recipe for terror?

I’ll Be Back Before Midnight harks back to those haunted house comedies of Hollywood’s Golden Era in which laughter and screams were bound to go hand in hand. Add to that a Charles Boyer/Ingrid Bergman-esque “Is he trying to drive her crazy?” plot with as many twists and turns as an Ira Levin thriller and you’ve got one of the most entertaining evenings in town for audiences in the mood to be tickled and terrified at the same time.

Colley and Colony Theatre vet David Rose have clearly done their comedy-horror homework, directing I’ll Be Back Before Midnight with a just-right blend of thrills, chills, and chuckles.

midnightlobby2 The always marvelous Strapp has created a Jan in classic damsel-in-distress tradition, but one with just enough hidden mettle to give us hope that our beleaguered heroine might just come out on top.

The dynamic Pierce follows his superb dramatic turn in How To Write A New Book For The Bible with a Greg who keeps us guessing vis–à–vis his motives in taking Jan so far away from civilization, and though a shirtless scene reveals musculature toned by an actor’s daily hours at the gym and not the undernourished archaeologist of Colley’s script, no one with an eye for the male physique is likely to complain.

Maher makes for a marvelously bitchy Laura, her Hitchcock Brunette beauty proving every bit as right for Greg’s bitch of a sister as it was for her recent star turn as Alice in You Can’t Take It With You, a gust of bone-chilling winter wind in Greg and Jan’s already chilly country abode.

midnightlobby1 Veteran character actor Orbach completes the cast terrifically as a seemingly harmless jokester conveniently twice Jan’s size should George turn out to be not quite as mild-mannered as he seems. Then again, is anyone really who he or she appears to be in Colley’s twisty-turny script?

An expert Colony Theatre design team (scenic designer extraordinaire Stephen Gifford, lighting design whiz Luke Moyer, master sound designer Drew Dalzell, and resident properties design/set dressing dynamos MacAndME) combine forces to up Colley’s script’s built-in thrills and chills. Gifford’s country farmhouse offers plenty of doors and curtains for ghosts to jump out of and a serving hatch between kitchen and living room, the sudden opening and closing of which guarantees gasp after gasp. Add to that Dalzell’s thunderous heartbeats and eerie floorboard creaks and ghostly moans, the dark, foreboding shadows Moyer casts on the walls, and MacAndME’s double-barrel shotgun, stone weaponry, and puddles of blood that appear out of nowhere on the living room floor, and you’ve got a couldn’t-be-better design package, completed by costume designer Diane K. Graebner’s perfectly chosen, character-appropriate garb.

tn-blr-0223-colony-theatres-ill-be-back-before-midnight-is-an-uneasy-night-of-diversion Leesa Freed is production stage manager, Robert T. Kyle technical director, Bjørn Johnson fight director, Maher fight captain, and Sherilyn Stetz makeup consultant. Gifford doubles as scenic artist, with Keirstin Fernandes serving as assistant scenic designer.

It’s been a while since the Colony offered its audiences a thriller, and with one as entertaining as I’ll Be Back Before Midnight, artistic director Barbara Beckley and company have come up with a winner, one that younger single ticket buyers will enjoy every bit as much as post-retirement age subscribers.

Take it from this reviewer. You’ll laugh. You’ll scream. You’ll have a ghostly, ghastly good time.

Colony Theatre, 555 North Third Street, Burbank.

–Steven Stanley
February 22, 2013
Photos: Michael Lamont

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