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REVIEW: ‘Wait Until Dark’ at Music Mountain Theatre in Lambertville

By John Dwyer

It is unusual for Music Mountain Theater to do a straight play. Its primary focus seems stated in its name, and that is in producing musicals. But truth be told, musicals are not mentioned in their mission statement. Their purpose is “to enrich, educate and entertain our community through the study, performance and appreciation of the arts.” So having been given one of the best “Full Monty” productions that you will see, it is great to see Music Mountain pull off a nail-biting mystery/thriller like “Wait Until Dark.”

The Bucks and Hunterdon County season has seen almost the entire oeuvre of Frederick Knott, the playwright who wrote this piece. Though he has also written for movies and TV, he only wrote three stage plays. They are “Dial M for Murder” (1952), “Write Me a Murder” (1961) and “Wait Until Dark” (1966). Knott was not prolific, so it is amazing that two-thirds of his plays were mega-hits and made into classic movies.

The Bucks County Playhouse produced a very polished and wonderful “Dial M for Murder” earlier this year, with updated bi-racial casting that made it even more thought provoking. Because of complex plot details and character development, Knott’s plays demand a good director and very, very good actors. That was the case with “Dial M” and, no mystery here, that again is the case in this latest production of “Wait Until Dark.”

“Wait Until Dark” does have a drawn-out setup. But it pays off in the second act. I mention the setup as it is a complaint about the show. But what saves it in the first act is the quality of actors and director in keeping it moving.

It is 1944, and Sam and Susy Hendrix (John Fischer and Lauren Brader) live in a lower Manhattan apartment. Sam travels a bit and has to leave his wife alone at times. Susy is recently blind — the result of an accident — and she is still getting used to her new set of circumstances.

Returning from a trip, Sam unwittingly brings back a musical doll that, unbeknownst to him, is stuffed with drugs. He leaves it home with Suzy, as he goes off on another trip. The woman who slipped the doll to Sam was part of a drug smuggling ring. We know that she broke into the apartment to retrieve the doll because her dead body is now inside the apartment. Suzy, being blind, never knows it is there.

The other drug dealers associated with the dead woman come back to the apartment to get back their property. They, obviously, have killed the woman who gave Sam the doll. They lie about who they are, but Susy doesn’t know where the doll is. They are unsure what this blind woman knows, but she is the only hope of getting it back. The doll on the street is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Susy meets Mike Talman (Roger Madding), who says he is a friend of her husband Sam. She meets Harry Roat, Sr. (Steve Lobis), who tells her the truth about the doll’s value and turns the apartment upside down to find it, to no avail. Mike calls the police for Susy and Sgt. Carlino (Andreas Quiroga) comes by to question her. With tension building, the neighbor’s child, Gloria ( Jamyson Bultemeier) from upstairs drops by to help Susy.

When this show first premiered in 1966, the role of Susy was played by Lee Remick. In the movie, it was Audrey Hepburn, and since then by Katharine Ross and Marisa Tomei in a television movie and a Broadway revival, respectively. The role of a Harry Roat, a sadistic, no-holds-barred killer, was originally played by Robert Duvall, and then Alan Arkin in the movie. In the TV movie, Stacy Keach played Harry against Katharine Ross, and it was Quentin Tarantino as the psychopath in the 1998 Broadway revival.

The reason for the bibliography is twofold. One is to give an idea as to the level of actor that is needed to play the leads of Susy and her terrorist, Harry Roat. The six-character play requires excellent actors in all the parts, but especially in the two aforementioned roles, or there is no reason to do the show. But the opposite is true, as well. Both Susy and Harry are parts that actors dream of playing. The challenges of the role are what appeal to the actors who are brave enough to tackle them.

Lauren Brader is wonderful as Susy Hendrix. She captures the vulnerability and a certain noble pluckiness that the character has, as she tries her best to cope with being newly unsighted. The arc of the performance as she becomes aware of the truth puts the entire audience on the edge of their seats. I got to the edge and fell off. It is mentioned that when sight gets taken away that the other senses become more aware. Brader’s performance backs that up, as she becomes more aware of sound, smell and sense of place.

Steve Lobis is a natural born killer. His portrayal of Harry Roat scares the bejesus out of you. With no sense of conscience, he is the kind of man who on his day planner, might write “pick up groceries, butcher and wash car.” But butcher means he is going to kill someone, and yes, it would be that routine for him to do so. Just part of his day and part of his business. And it is the part he likes. Excellent job by Lobis.

Roger Madding continues to impress. He is beyond excellent as Mike Talman, Sam’s friend. He is as calm as still water in a pond and hits just the right note against the growing agitation of a helpless blind girl. Andreas Quiroga intensely interrogates as Sergeant Carlino and develops an underlying sense of menace as time goes by. John Fischer is stalwart as good husband Sam, and Jamyson Bultemeir seems to be able to be appropriately bratty and endearing at the same time as Gloria.

Robert Thick is the director. He is a founder of the Off-Broadstreet Theater in Hopewell, New Jersey, and has directed over 225 shows there, as per the program. This is one of which he should be particularly proud. Kudos to Jared Williams for lighting design, which is very important to this show.

What you take away from this gripping play with equally gripping performances is that there are not just things hidden in dolls but hidden in people. Some of it is good and some bad, and some things can make you scream (which the audience does).  But what is in plain sight at Music Mountain are the outstanding performances in this excellent production of “Wait Until Dark.”

Don’t wait to get a ticket, as the show ends July 28. Tickets are available online.

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