It's easy to forget that Wait Until Dark existed before Audrey Hepburn, Alan Arkin, and Terence Young. That's partly because Warner Bros. acquired the rights to Frederick Knott's stage thriller almost immediately after its Broadway debut in early 1966 and got it into movie theaters by the fall of 1967. Any new performance carries the burden of expectations set by the film. But, director Matt Shakman's new production at L.A.'s Geffen Playhouse (running through Nov. 17) reminds CGI-infected audiences that a few shadows, a shiny knife, and compelling characters can still go a long way to create suspense.
Even those who haven’t seen the film likely know a bit about the plot: A group of thugs on the hunt for a valuable doll terrorize a blind woman in her home as she quickly figures out whom she can and cannot trust. In Jeffrey Hatcher new adaptation, the action takes place in 1944 in the basement apartment of Susan Hendrix (Alison Pill). Ordinary objects the phone, the venetian blinds, the dining room chairs are at turns comforts, threats, and clues for Susan as she tries to determine the motives of the suspicious visitors. Not only does the show manage to prey on a seeing public’s anxiety around blindness, it also reminds us of how our social graces can so easily put us in danger. Not to mention that a world before cellphones could yield disarming levels of isolation.
Pill, best known as manic and occasionally unhinged news producer Maggie Jordan on HBO’s The Newsroom, emerges from the shadow of Hepburn’s Oscar-nominated performance by playing Susan as a witty, self-deprecating, hard-as-nails survivor. She exudes just enough vulnerability to make the audience care, but not so much as to fall into cloying damsel-in-distress territory. The 1940s setting helps, allowing Pill to play Susan as a fast-talking Howard Hawks-style broad who's just as likely to cuss out the feisty teenage girl who helps her (Brighid Fleming, performing with verve) as she is to ask her husband (Matt McTighe) with dry sarcasm whether or not he’s done playing ''I married a blind girl.''
The thieves and con men are played as broad noir types preying on Susan’s trust and handicap. There’s the moustache-twirling, nasal-voiced mastermind Roat (Adam Stein), the oafish, slow-moving Carlino (Rod McLachlan), and the suave Mike (Mather Zickel), so handsome that even Susan knows he's a stunner. It’s the way he carries himself and his voice, she explains in one of the unexpected moments of actual sexual tension.
Shakman saves most of the thrills for the end and the famous showdown does not disappoint. ''You can be likable and still be a thief,'' Mike tells Susan at one point. ''Actually,'' he adds, ''it's kind of a requirement.'' The same is true for creating suspense that's more than just a few bumps and jumps. Wait Until Dark earns its climax through enthralling, layered characters. A-