nytheatre.com review by David Johnston
May 16, 2007
This may sound strange to say about a thriller, but Gaslight, currently playing at the Irish Repertory Theatre, is a charmer. A huge commercial success from the 1940s, Gaslight (also known as Angel Street) is about a scoundrel slowly driving his wife mad, by fiddling with the lights and hiding grocery bills. He's already taken her money to buy the house, murdered the previous occupant, and is now plotting to have his innocent wife carted off to the loony bin, so he can tear the house apart to find the Barlow rubies. Get the picture?
Gaslight was made into a successful film with Ingrid Bergman winning an Oscar as the beleaguered heroine. (Playwright Patrick Hamilton turned out another neat little thriller, Rope, which served as the basis for the Hitchcock classic.) Gaslight is a fine example of popular stage thrillers like Wait Until Dark, Dial M for Murder, and Night Must Fall, works that went on to have long and profitable lives in stock and community theatres. (Many of these plays have a terrified female at the center, being menaced by a cruel male killer.) There's something comforting about watching them now. It's not a night at the theatre that will change your life. You won't get Odets's gritty realism, O'Neill's tragic grandeur or Williams' lyricism. But still—it's fun to see how they're going to trap the bastard.
The chief pleasure of Gaslight is watching the formidable Brian Murray in the stock role of the police detective, Inspector Rough. Murray is clearly descended from a line of first-rate character actors, such as Claude Rains and Edward G. Robinson. The part they're playing is inconsequential—we just like to watch them do their thing. Onstage Brian Murray is all guile and cunning, with flashes of humor, done up in his basso growl and rolling gait. I'm in awe of him as an actor—have been for years. He can draw every eye in the house to him with one raised brow. (I dare anyone to not be delighted by his gleeful discovery of the last hiding place of the oft-mentioned Barlow rubies.) The crafty Murray—er, Inspector—enters the play in the second scene and dominates to the end. Gaslight is pure well-made stage thriller, and it's Murray who provides most of the evening's laughs and chills.
The rest of the cast is uniformly solid. Laura Odeh is suitably hysteric as Bella Manningham, who in the course of one evening finds out her husband of five years is a bigamist, thief, and homicidal maniac. She pushes the nerves a bit in the first scene, but scores nicely in her final confrontation with her cad of a spouse. David Staller, as the murderous Jack Manningham, is an imposing strapping sort, but speaks all of his lines in a soft, lilting tone, which can turn soothing or menacing as required. Patricia O'Connell does nicely as Elizabeth, the faithful retainer. In one scene, she begs her master to let her get his ties and collars, knowing the police inspector is hiding in the wardrobe. O'Connell never overplays or milks the scene for effect, yet her eyes tell you everything. Laoisa Sexton is fine as Nancy, the sluttish maid with her eye on the man of the house.
Charlotte Moore's direction is discreet and professional, keeping focus where it needs to be. (Gaslight is most definitely not a director's showcase. The goal here is to keep it moving and make sure no one bumps into the furniture.) All the design elements—James Morgan's set, Martha Hally's costumes, Brian Nason's lights that flicker and dim—fit together smoothly.
So what is Gaslight? A solid-oak, well-made commercial thriller from the first half of the 20th century, meant to please, entertain and divert. Some—grouchy artistic types, maybe—could carp that Gaslight is no more than a novelty, a curiosity, a quaint museum piece. And they're right. But some of us like museums.