James Yaffe's "Cliffhanger" may look simplistic, but don't be fooled. This odd little thriller's mystery elements are finely crafted, and there is a tongue-in-cheek quality; it's full of humor, with a large dollop of insight into the human condition, especially concerning academia.
If all of those things aren't fully realized in Darlene Hunter-Chaffee's staging at the Newport Theatre Arts Center, there is enough here to at least make it an enjoyable evening.
Philosophy professor Henry Lowenthal (Stu Eriksen) and his devoted wife, Polly (played by Eriksen's real-life wife, Joyce), are respected members of their small college community in the Rocky Mountains. He has turned 65 but is not worried about the school's obligatory retirement rule, because he's sure to be awarded the Van Voorhees Chair in his department, which will allow him to teach into his dotage.
The chairperson of the department, disgruntled former student Edith Wilshire (Ellen Walcutt), has different ideas. She wants this relic of bygone thought retired and out of her hair.
Socrates has always come to Lowenthal's aid, and does again. During a violent argument, Lowenthal clouts Wilshire on the head with a bust of his revered sage, killing her. To complicate matters, while the professor and his wife are planning a complicated cover-up, rich brat student Melvin McMullen (Michael Mangiamele) arrives in a snit, insisting that Lowenthal change his flunking grade.
To give away any more of the plot would do the play a disservice. Suffice to say all is not as it seems, and the constantly switching clues are fun to watch.
Unfortunately, there are some production flaws: The arrival of police inspector De Vito (Jack Gallagher) is always accompanied by a siren, even when he's come merely to question witnesses; visitors leave the Lowenthal home without closing the front door, illogical even in a small town. Also, Hunter-Chaffee's staging does not give the piece the sense of urgency and danger needed to enhance Yaffe's insidious humor, so some laugh lines are lost.
But what's most significantly missing is the wealth of character detail that would help the production go beyond its surface appeal.
Stu Eriksen doesn't find as much as he could have in his characterization of Lowenthal. Properly thoughtful and restrained, he lacks the torment his character would feel at the very un-Socratic mess he has gotten himself into, and this, too, buries some very funny lines.
As the nasty student who throws a monkey-wrench into the Lowenthals' clever cover-up, Mangiamele gives a standard screwed-up-kid performance that gives itself away too soon, though his slightly effeminate psychological tics work well. And in the small role of the professor's victim, Walcutt seems to be trying hard not to be disliked by the audience, which is all wrong for the character.
The most effective performance is that of Joyce Eriksen as the adoring spouse who is more logical and practical than her husband ever imagined. Eriksen is believable and effectively shows Polly's innate willpower.
Gallagher is also very good and truthful as the inspector, with just the right touch of lightness and a controlled sense of calm that belies what he knows.
Stu Eriksen: Henry Lowenthal
Joyce Eriksen: Polly Lowenthal
Michael Mangiamele: Melvin McMullen
Jack Gallagher: Dave De Vito
Ellen Walcutt: Edith Wilshire
A Newport Theatre Arts Center production of James Yaffe's comedy-thriller. Produced by Jeanne Nininger and Terri Miller Schmidt. Directed by Darlene Hunter-Chaffee. Scenery: 16th Street Design. Lighting: John Fejes. Costumes: Tom Phillips. Stage manager: Maria Bercovitz. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.
* What: "Cliffhanger."
* When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 15.
* Where: Newport Theatre Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive.
* Whereabouts: From Pacific Coast Highway, turn onto Riverside Avenue going east, then turn right onto Cliff Drive.
* Wherewithal: $13.
* Where to call: (714) 631-0288.