Not Just Cheap Thrills
Skeletons in the corner, jittery women in crisply pressed nurses' uniforms, doors that are shifting entries to alternative realities ... if you think this is theater of the absurd, think again. You have entered one of theater's most loved but problematic genres: the thriller. From Sleuth to Deathtrap, theatrical thrillers have been successful because of their anticipated yet somehow surprising twists and turns. But that was more than ten years ago. With the advent of SurroundSound and the overwhelming popularity of high-tech slasher flicks, has American theater exhausted its ability to truly thrill? Even the title of the British play making its American debut at GableStage -- Mindgame -- underscores the promise of a complicated, mind-boggling plot. While the twists and turns are clever and have a fair amount of psychological depth, the real jewel of this play is the intellectual and theatrical showdown between the costars, spiked with the comic brilliance of Lisa Morgan.
Mindgame takes place in the office of Dr. Alex Farquhar (Bob Rogerson), who runs an experimental hospital for the criminally insane. Author Mark Styler (David Kwiat) intends to convince Farquhar to grant him six one-hour interviews with one of the hospital's most famous patients, a serial killer named Easterman. Farquhar is strangely unaware of the appointment he made with the writer and has kept him waiting for two hours. He is unresponsive to the idea of the interviews until his interest is piqued by the details of Styler's previous books, which have garnered the writer money, notoriety, movie options, and so on. As the thriller genre presupposes, everything is a bit out of whack. Not surprisingly, as the doctor and the writer swap theories and stories (they both just happen to come from the same small town in Northern England), we begin to wonder who's who. Farquhar's nurse, Jane Plimpton (Morgan), enters the stage through a door that seconds earlier appeared to be a closet. She is noticeably edgy and tries to slip Styler a note, confounding even further our sense of reality and verity.
Rich Simone has crafted the set in rich wood tones, lending a distinguished air to the scene. Farquhar's office is unusually barren, save for a skeleton hanging in the corner, a large desk, and some shelves. Although this is not the office one would expect from a renowned psychiatrist and the head of a medical facility, its minimalism serves an important purpose: It visually opens up the stage, helping to spotlight the play's dialogue. Mindgame is almost completely constructed around dialogue, which takes place between Farquhar and Styler for the majority of the play without scene changes. The monotony that results from having the two actors project the same level of intensity throughout the first half has more to do with directional choices than ones of character portrayal.
Kwiat's characters are always just off-kilter enough to be intriguing. Whether he's portraying a Hollywood movie tycoon (as in the recent GableStage production of Adam Baum and The Jew Movie) or the dubious writer of serial-killer exposés in Mindgame, Kwiat always develops his characters around an idiosyncratic element that keeps them quirky and unpredictable. Likewise Rogerson, who starred as revolutionary and rabble-rouser Tom Paine in GableStage's recent production of Citizen Tom Paine, also uses this role as an occasion to show off his versatility and high energy.
In her GableStage debut, Morgan gets the opportunity to flaunt her comic wares as the frenetic Plimpton. The actress has a propensity for comedy and parody that lends itself perfectly to the character. She plays the would-be nurse with a melodrama à la bloodcurdling thrillers of the Fifties that interrupts the discourse with some laughs and also breaks the monotony that sometimes creeps onstage. Morgan's performance also underscores one of the play's subplots: Mindgame is both a thriller and a satire of itself.
While it may not have you on the edge of your seat, Mindgame definitely will tease, intrigue, and keep you guessing not so much whodunnit but why they dunnit. At the script's center lies the age-old question of the origin of evil, sufficiently reinvigorated by playwright Anthony Horowitz, who positions Dr. Farquhar and Styler in an intellectual battle of wits. Styler's fascination with Easterman stems from the fact that the murderer is the only serial killer he's encountered who was not abused as a child -- Easterman actually seems to have had a happy, healthy childhood. This leads the men into a discussion of evil and the potential to "rehabilitate" mass murderers, pedophiles, and the like. Farquhar builds his philosophy around the idea that "madness need not be all breakdown. It can be breakthrough." The script is layered with quotes ranging from Socrates ("Nobody ever does wrong willingly") to Foucault ("To enlighten the endless night of insanity with the torch of responsibility"). These references make the script as intellectually interesting as it is suspenseful.
Despite references to modern-day serial killers such as Jeffrey Dahmer and a notably contemporary perspective of the publishing industry, Mindgame sometimes has an undeniably Seventies feel to it. Concepts such as "open" prisons and drama therapy were really first being explored in the Seventies and probably won't strike a contemporary theatergoer as particularly modern. This undermines the play's verisimilitude a bit, and unnecessarily so. For example it doesn't seem essential to the plot that the mental hospital be alternative or that Farquhar be a renegade in his field.
In the world of thrillers and mysteries, film's advantage over theater is its potential to create simultaneity. It is not Hannibal Lecter's cannibalism that shocks us but rather the experience of being within the psychological range of Lecter, Clarice Starling, and a serial killer on the loose all at once. This creates the kind of juxtaposition that keeps viewers on the edge of their seats. While technically it's much more difficult in theater to create the suspense that comes from being in three different places or minds at once, what theater can do is put the audience directly into the moment by virtue of proximity and theatricality. Playwright Horowitz rightfully chose to design this thriller as a battle of wits and a tightly woven knot of lies, illusion, and lunacy. Likewise director Joseph Adler has selected a cast whose comfort level onstage and capacity for spontaneity is so well developed, each performance of Mindgame is bound to be unique.
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