nytheatre.com review by Larry Kunofsky
September 15, 2007
J.B. Priestley is a British playwright (whose greatest hits were in the '30s and '40s) to whom we need to pay more attention. Priestley wrote melodrama, old-time-y potboilers with lots of plot twists involving well-heeled upper-class chaps and dames. Priestley was good at melodrama; his work always keeps his audience on the edge of their seats. But, more importantly, there is always something more going on in his work than mere melodrama. Beneath the surface of the whodunit structure of Priestley's plays, there are always more probing questions. We'll figure out Who Did It in his plays, sure, but we'll also ask ourselves who we are, and why we do the things that we do. This aspect of Priestley's work makes him more than a mere entertainer. His type of entertainment has gone slightly out of fashion, but his work asks questions for which we may never find answers, and this makes his work timeless and universal.
For these reasons alone, I'd suggest that you go see Boomerang Theatre Company's production of Priestley's Dangerous Corner. But I need more than suggest, I think I need to urge you to go see it. As the British would say, it's a topping production.
The scene is the drawing room of an English home. The lady of the house entertains her female guests as the men gossip in the other room. The conclusion of a pretty melodramatic-sounding BBC radio drama is heard, in which a man shoots himself at its climax. As the men return to the party, everyone jokes about the over-the-top radio play and its plot twists, never realizing that their lives will take on such melodrama this evening, and with it, such tragedy, as well. These characters try, at first, to drink and dance and laugh the night away, but it becomes clear that their lives have not been free of hardship and that sorrow is about to return, just around the corner.
If this seems a little bit like old movies and plays that you've seen before, it's because the author intends to lull the audience, at first, with familiarity, before unleashing a story with metaphysical and existential proportions. Dangerous Corner is a cozy little play, but one with fangs attached where you least expect them.
Robert and Freda Caplan are the host and hostess of the evening. Shortly after the talk of radio drama dies down, it becomes clear to us that death has reared its ugly head into these people's lives. Just about a year ago, Robert's brother Martin was found dead in his holiday cottage, an apparent suicide, apparently distraught about the matter of £5,000 with which he apparently absconded. We learn a great deal of this initial information from Miss Mockridge, a spinster novelist, and her nosy questions, but the other characters in the play all had intimate knowledge of Martin when he was alive, and each of them has slightly more information about what really happened to him.
There is even an element of Rashomon in these proceedings. Even though everyone knew Martin, no one seems to have known the same Martin. To Gordon, Martin was the perfect best friend. To Stanton, Martin was an even more disreputable businessman than Stanton himself. To Olwen, Martin was a burden to her true love, Robert. To Robert's wife, Martin was the man of her dreams. The confluence of myths and facts around Martin and Martin's demise reveals a group of people who run on an engine of false identities and conflicting desires (even homosexual desire, which seems kind of radical for a play first performed in 1932), in keeping with the almost dazzling mechanism of the play, resembling, in parts, a Chinese puzzle, and, in others, those Russian dolls that come out of themselves, one after the other.
I hope I've made clear that Dangerous Corner is a good play. But many a good play has been butchered by misguided, if well-meaning, productions. Since this is an old British chestnut, the likelihood of misguidedness runs pretty high. But what makes this production of Dangerous Corner a fine theatrical experience is Boomerang Theatre's understanding of this play and the spirit in which it needs to be presented. Dangerous Corner is a thriller, but director Phillip Emeott keeps the pacing fast, almost like a farce, it from the perils of clunkiness. Instead, two hours go by pretty quickly, and most audience members on the night I saw it seemed anxious to return to the action during the two intermissions. The audience often howled with laughter at the absurd plot turns, but this production never apologizes for the at-times over-the-top qualities of the play by imposing a false sense of irony or self-consciousness; this play is fun, and the production allows the audience to have fun with it.
Emeott's direction keeps the actors all on the same page, in terms of the style of presentation for the play, allowing for the optimal cohesiveness of plot and character development. And the performances are among the most winning elements of the production. I usually find fake British accents insufferable, but the entire cast handles the dialect with ease and without pretension. The standouts in the ensemble include Chris Thorn's performance as Robert, the tormented brother left behind to pick up the pieces to a dead man's life; Karen Sternberg as his long-suffering spouse, trying to keep it together; and Catherine McNelis, who offers a touching depiction of unrequited love as Olwen. Special kudos go to Justin Holcomb's commanding performance as Stanton, who, I was shocked to discover, was an understudy.
There is, of course, a lot to recommend here, so I urge you to see Dangerous Corner for a ripping good time.