A raised knife and a terrified scream. A dangling corpse. Gunshots. Another raised knife. More gunshots.
"Stage Struck"--at the Long Beach Playhouse's smaller, professional Studio Theatre--is a comic thriller without comedy or thrills. But don't blame director Darlene Hunter-Chaffee or her actors. The culprit, officer, is Simon Gray, the British author of such otherwise successful plays as "Butley," "Otherwise Engaged," "Quartermaine's Terms" and "The Common Pursuit."
In his 1979 play, Gray murders the genre with half-baked pop psychology, absurd behavior, and some particularly smelly red herrings. The supposedly sinister goings-on occur at an English country home (where else?) owned by Anne, a successful West End actress, and Robert, her former actor and stage manager of a husband, who now stays home to attend to all things domestic.
Robert (Jason Schlatter) comes across as a wannabe Noel Coward character--sleek, cynical and flippant--in his opening conversation with Herman (Michael Langley), a tenant on the property. Herman, despondent over a troubled love affair, pulls a gun. He's not trying to shoot Robert, however; Herman's merely showing him the weapon the lover has left behind.
This is the first in a string of sudden reversals--of things not being as they seem.
The bored, affected Anne (Kathleen Chapin) returns from a rough night at the theater and, after listening to Robert natter on for a bit, informs him that she's giving him the boot. Robert, who has no other means of support, grows testy. Anne leaves the room, and Herman reenters to ask Robert to hold on to the gun, as well as the knife his lover has also left behind.
What then ensues is a sort of mind game as Robert sets out to revenge himself on Anne and the therapist (Ric Watson) she says empowered her to move on.
The performances are impressive, especially given this production's behind-the-scenes drama. Schlatter took over the role of Robert just two weeks before the opening, after the actor cast in the role was robbed and shot (he's recovering). The actor playing the therapist subsequently bowed out, to be replaced by Watson.
Schlatter's unconventional good looks work to his advantage as the well-dressed househusband, and--whether sneering, pouting or menacing--he's great fun to watch. Chapin is a stitch as the oh, so actressy actress-wife, and Langley appropriately plays the role as a nebbish. As the therapist, Watson believably dissolves from arrogant professional to blubbering man-child.
Hunter-Chaffee keeps the action ebbing and flowing, twisting and turning--and she stages the bizarre twists with as much truthfulness as she can muster. (Yow, look at the mess those blood capsules make!) It all looks elegant and playful in the casually chic living room designed by Steven Jay Warner.
But that script. . . .
* "Stage Struck," Long Beach Playhouse's Studio Theatre, 5021 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach. 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, matinees 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 5 and 12. Ends Oct. 18. $10-$15. (562) 494-1616. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.
Jason Schlatter: Robert
Michael Langley: Herman
Kathleen Chapin: Anne
Ric Watson: Widdecombe
A Long Beach Playhouse production. Script by Simon Gray. Directed by Darlene Hunter-Chaffee. Set: Steven Jay Warner. Lights: Martin G. Eckmann. Stage manager: Betsy Clelland.