“You’re a very clever blind girl,” growls a knife-wielding nogoodnik to Susan Hendrix, the sight-deprived heroine of “Wait Until Dark.” We’re practically at the play’s crisis point, but he’s issuing a begrudging compliment.
And as far as Susan’s cleverness is concerned, this rat doesn’t know the half of it. Via an elaborate and overly-complicated con, three perfectly sighted men are trying to get away with murder and collect a valuable stolen item, all the while keeping a “helpless” young woman (that would be our Susan) in the dark as to what’s going on. One slight hitch: Susan may be recently blind, and may not yet know her way around her apartment quite like a pro, but her other senses work just fine, and she is nobody’s pigeon.
In her L.A. stage debut, Alison Pill (“The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” “Mauritius”) isn’t just a smart casting choice, she’s “Dark’s” shining light. Surrounded as Pill is by a strong cast, Matt Shakman’s production at the Geffen Playhouse makes for crackling good entertainment on a chilly fall night (or a balmy matinee. This being L.A., who are we kidding?).
The talented but hugely unprolific playwright Frederick Knott wrote two hit plays: “Dark” and “Dial M for Murder.” The latter stands as is; the former took a commissioned revamp by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher (“Three Viewings,” “A Picasso”) who exacted none of the suspense or ingenuity in crafting this adaptation. The Shakman-directed “Dark” still feels like a period piece, but a period piece that is rust free. The action has been moved from the 1960s to 1944 which makes Susan’s photographer husband Sam (played by Matt McTighe) a war casualty and the three conspirators draft dodgers or people who were unfit to serve for other unsavory reasons.
The basement brownstone set designed by Craig Siebels – with photography equipment and dark room exposed and made use of – is rendered with smart and meticulous detail from those window blinds to that all important fridge. Lighting designer Elizabeth Harper works some very nifty tonal and visual effects as Susan starts manipulating the fuse box and corridor bulbs to help level her playing field. Acting, technical skill and direction combine to make this “Dark” a well-oiled machine.
We begin with the scheme: an oafish disgraced former cop named Carlino (Rod McLachlan) is blackmailed by an immaculately dressed – and far smarter – Harry Roat (Adam Stein) into taking part in the con. Roat has murdered a woman who is stashed inside the Hendrix’s apartment. Carlino’s job is to help get rid of the body and play the part of a policeman who is seeking the murderer. Matters are timed and arranged to go down when Sam is out of town on a job and Susan is alone in the apartment with only a bratty and often defiant adolescent upstairs neighbor named Gloria (Brighid Fleming) deputized by Sam to check in. The crooks don’t count on Gloria, but – neighbor’s help or not – Susan is a worthy adversary.
As cops, intruders and other visitors start coming into the Hendrix’s apartment in search of a missing doll, the urgency is ramped up and the stakes get higher. The con involves casting doubt on the stability of Susan and Sam’s marriage. Thus, our imperiled heroine has to contend with serious emotional distress followed by physical threats.
In a role previously undertaken by Lee Remick and Marissa Tomei (on Broadway) and Audrey Hepburn on film, Pill is superb. Dark haired and waifish, balancing between fear and being seriously pissed off, this Susan has us firmly in her corner from the get-go. Pill, who previously played Annie Sullivan, is a technically skilled actress; the slips and gropings never feel stagey or overreaching, and she fully conveys the fact that this trial is Susan’s early stab at independence.
The men don’t cardboard themselves either. Stein’s Roat has an oiliness that morphs easily into menace; he’s no match for McLachlan’s sturdy but un-brainy Carlino. There’s some nice amity that teeters on sexual tension between Pill and Mather Zickel as Mike, the soldier friend of Sam’s who arrives and tried to help Susan through the puzzle. We know Mike’s a fraud long before Susan does, but in Zickel’s hands, the character is handsome, none too slick and genuinely on the horns of an ethical dilemma here.
Shakman knows that he’s working a thriller here and the final 15 minutes make for a good heart-pumping ride. Clearly some old chestnuts can still make for a tasty serving.
“Wait Until Dark” plays 8 p.m. Tue.-Sat. 3 p.m. Sat., 2 and 7 p.m. Sun.; through Nov. 17 at the Geffen Playhouse , 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. $74-$79. (310 - 208.2028, www.geffenplayhouse.com.