Colony Theatre's 'I'll Be Back Before Midnight' is an uneasy night of diversion

In the mood for a few chills and things that go bump in the night? If so, the Los Angeles premiere of Peter Colley's 1979 seriocomic psychological thriller, "I'll Be Back Before Midnight," at the Colony Theatre in Burbank may be your ticket, despite hokey hiccups here and there.

A bleak old house in the country wouldn't seem the ideal place to bring a wife fresh from a lengthy hospital stay for high anxiety and panic attacks. But that's where fragile Jan (Joanna Strapp) finds herself when husband Greg (Tyler Pierce) decides that the isolated property is just the place to restart the couple's faltering marriage.

Jan is willing to make the best of it until she learns that Greg's sleek, sophisticated sister Laura (Kate Maher) is joining them that very day for an indeterminate stay. Jan is certain that Laura is not only hostile to her, but is an unhealthy influence on Greg, who, it seems, just wants them all to get along.

Tensions mount, and big, grizzled farmer George (Ron Orbach), the couple's landlord and nearest neighbor, doesn't help matters. Genial George, who has a penchant for ghoulish humor, gruesome headlines and jocular scaremongering, informs the couple that the house is rumored to be haunted by the ghost of a crazed hermit who some 50 years before murdered a woman in that very house. And oh, yes, it seems that whenever a murder is committed in the area, a bloodstain appears on the floor.

Laura relishes the rumors, Greg laughs them off. Jan wonders if she's heading for another breakdown. Is the house really haunted? Is there significance to the old rifle and stone age flint axes — the latter figure in Greg's field of study — that are mounted on the wall? Why is Greg loving one moment and distant the next? And what is Laura's story, really? The audience sees what Jan sees, but will the disturbing happenings prove to be her imagination after all, or is something more diabolical going on?

Directed by Colley and David Rose, the play, copiously produced in Canada and elsewhere, telegraphs too much in the “Gaslight” vein for a mood of sustained suspense, but there are genuine surprises and nerve-jangling jolts that it wouldn't be fair to reveal, the capable actors deliver, and a few final dark twists ensure that the ending won't be quite as expected.

Set designer Stephen Gifford hits a properly uneasy note with his gloomy décor — a long room furnished with old and dusty pieces, a narrow staircase, sliding doors, a wood-burning stove and tall windows concealed behind draperies that stir to ominous effect. Lighting designer Luke Moyer makes a major contribution to the proceedings' overall creepiness with dimly lit wall sconces, lightning flashes and sudden blackouts, while Drew Dalzell does the same with a spot-on sound design (car arrivals and departures, thumps and creaks, thunder and rain).

Diane K. Graebner's costumes unobtrusively define each character, although for the good of the play, the directors should ask Pierce to keep his T-shirt on. At one point the actor bares his notably buff chest and does a few stretches. And while the sight may be an undeniable audience pleaser — it elicited an audibly appreciative response during the performance that I attended — and even if meant to reveal a hitherto unexpected aspect of Greg's personality, it comes across as gratuitous, serving neither the plot's continuity nor its suspenseful intent.

What: "I'll Be Back Before Midnight"

Where: The Colony Theatre, 555 N. Third St., Burbank.

When: 8 p.m. Thursday through Friday., 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Ends next Sunday.

Tickets and info: $20 to $42. (818) 558-7000, Ext. 15,


LYNNE HEFFLEY writes about theater and culture for Marquee.

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