GAS LIGHT, a Victorian thriller by British dramatist, PatRick Hamilton, opened in London in 1939 and in 1941 appeared on Broadway under the title, ANGEL STREET. The dark, psychological thriller - about a murderous, scheming husband, who sets out to convince his wife that she is going mad - was an instant success and went on to become one of the longest-running non-musical shows in Broadway's history. It was later made into a Hollywood movie, again under the name GAS LIGHT, starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer.
The play, presented under its original American title of ANGEL STREET, opened at the Adobe Theatre on July 6. Set in fog-bound London in the late 1800s, the action takes place in the upscale home of Mr. and Mrs. Manningham. Their comfortable, Victorian living room is lighted by gas lamps (hence the play's original title) which acquire a particular, eerie significance as the mystery unfolds.
At first, all appears to be quite normal between Jack Manningham (played by Dale Simpkins) and his wife, Bella (Teresa Kizziah.) But it soon becomes apparent that things are not what they seem, as the audience begins to realize that Jack Manningham is systematically trying to drive his wife insane. He constantly accuses her of losing things he, himself, has hidden and makes a point of reminding her that her own mother went mad and died in a mental institution.
As the tension builds and Bella, a Victorian wife, with few options for escaping her husband's malevolent maneuverings, seems about to crack, she is visited by a retired police sergeant, Sergeant Rough (played, with some well-timed light relief, by Stephen Zamora.) He has news for Bella, shocking news in fact, but he also has a theory about why her husband is trying to drive her mad. And it's at this point that the tension really begins to build.
But tension is sadly lacking in this production; there is no spine-chilling suspense to keep you glued to The Edge of your seat, as the action, which could fairly be described as Sherlock Holmes meets Alfred Hitchcock, steadily builds to the final, shocking climax. Dale Simpkins lacks conviction as the murderous, menacing Mr. Manningham. As the tension slowly mounts, he should inspire chills (the original Broadway role was played by Vincent Price) but Simpkins' character falls disappointingly flat. He comes across as a bully and a liar, rather than an unnerving, sinister psychopath and barely evolves as a personality, as the story unfolds.
Possibly distracted by the demands of a British accent, none of The Players seem to be really comfortable in their characters' skins, which explains the lack of emotionally charged interplay and dramatic tension between them. Bella's final one-on-one scene with her husband, now exposed as a cold, maniacal killer, fails to get the adrenaline pumping, as she launches into what is clearly intended to be a passionate, cathartic tirade. Stephen Zamora, as Sergeant Rough, provides the most realistic interpretation, a laid-back, retired cop, who can't resist the thrill of solving a previously unsolved murder mystery.
Producer, Paula Stein, also fails to fully embrace the 'Upstairs, Downstairs' element of this tightly constructed play. The Manninghams' young maidservant, Nancy (played by Anne Sheridan) does not come across as a working class girl, who knows her place and is at once shocked and flattered by her master's inappropriate attentions. The costume in which she appears, after returning from her evening off, is also strikingly inappropriate.
All in all, the Adobe Theater's production of ANGEL STREET is a courageous, but, finally, flawed attempt to reproduce a classic thriller, which, at its best, has kept audiences enthralled and on The Edge of their seats, for more than 70 years.
ANGEL STREET runs now through July 29 at the Adobe Theatre. Details and tickets at www.adobetheatre.org.
Photo courtesy of Ossy Werner