No Great Mystery

The murder mystery may be the bastard progeny of drama and fiction, and the finest of this breed sure knows how to entertain. At its strongest, a mystery, a thriller, a detective story, a tale of suspense will seize you from the first plot twist and not once let go. If you take your pleasure in book form, you're up reading until 3:00 a.m. with windows and doors double-locked. If you catch a whodunit on television, you're so wiped out you can barely make it to the kitchen to refuel during commercials. (And forget ad-free PBS offerings; you're welded to the TV screen for the duration.) At the movies or live theater, you grip the sides of your seat; you cower; you forget to breathe. Your pulse does not return to normal until the questions of who did it, how they did it, why they did it, and how they will be brought to justice are answered. After all, along with suspense and compellingly wrought good guys and bad guys, resolution is one of the givens of the genre. Life certainly doesn't offer us tidy resolution, and neither does contemporary highbrow drama or fiction.

The 1986 thriller Dangerous Obsession ties up its messy loose ends in a neat little bow at the close of its second act. On-stage at Actors' Playhouse in Coral Gables, it also offers, toward its finish, a couple of unforeseen turns. Yet the revelations and the conclusion deliver, at best, only fleeting twinges of satisfaction, as opposed to the catharsis experienced when watching more intricately plotted and incisively observed work. Blame both the British playwright N.J. Crisp and this production's director David Arisco for this tepid sense of completion. Each, in his own way, commits a cardinal sin: They both opt for predictability over surprise.

Dangerous Obsession appears to have all the necessary ingredients for the brand of thriller known as the English mystery: an isolated house in the country, an enigmatic stranger who arrives unannounced, a hard-drinking wife, a husband with secrets, a death by suspicious accident, a thunderstorm that shuts down the electricity, and a gun. The curtain rises to reveal Sally Driscoll (Kim Cozort) clad only in a bathing suit as she waters the plants in the conservatory of her estate. Suddenly a man appears at her door claiming that he met Sally and her husband Mark (Tom Wahl) at a business conference several months back. Sally remembers the conference but can't remember John Barrett (John Felix) or his wife Jane; then again, Sally's memory has been blurred by vast amounts of alcohol, imbibed before, during, and after the conference. Inviting Barrett inside, she begins to mix the first of many pitchers of martinis that will get her through the coming evening.

Barrett tells Sally that he has come to see Mark on business; since he and his wife met the Driscolls, he continues forlornly, his wife has died. Sally sympathizes, but when Mark arrives he wants nothing to do with Barrett, instructing the visitor to meet him at his office during the week. Barrett has no intention of leaving, as he makes violently clear at the end of act one. In act two he discloses the nature of his business while holding the Driscolls hostage.

Perhaps I've read too many books by English authors such as P.D. James and Ruth Rendell, or seen too many BBC Mystery! episodes featuring Agatha Christie's sleuth Miss Marple or Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse, but the purpose of Barrett's visit screamed "Hello!" at me within moments of his crossing the Driscoll threshold; then it took far too long for my suspicions to be confirmed. Although marked by engaging performances from Felix and Cozort, much of act one is burdened with endless exposition. The suspense meter rises considerably during act two, but only in comparison to its predecessor. The faaade of the Driscolls' perfectly constructed upper-class marriage cracks; once again the rich are exposed as less principled and more miserable than the rest of us. What else is new? And on behalf of the doggedly obsessed, less-privileged Barrett, Felix gets to speak insight-laden lines such as "I'm a little mad, you know. But then again, I think there's a bit of madness in all of us."

Despite being hobbled by a thin script, Cozort and Felix deliver impressive portrayals, although they are forced to labor against uninspired direction and a pallid performance by Wahl. Cozort, a commanding actor who has appeared on many local stages, makes her Actors' Playhouse debut here. Ever the perfect hostess, her Sally walks a line between seductress and therapist, living up to Barrett's description of her as adept at "charming men without making women jealous." The actress is equally convincing whether her character maintains appearances through a drunken haze or succumbs to pressure and momentarily breaks down. In turn, Felix, as Barrett, stealthily moves back and forth between obsequiousness and cunning, throwing in a dollop of tenderness when he speaks about his wife. Wahl, on the other hand, never quite pulls off either his English accent or his depiction of Mark as a cold, controlling, conscienceless businessman. The actor just seems bored.

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