What gives a 70-year-old melodrama its staying power? In the case of Patrick Hamilton’s Angel Street, it might be the writing, which is cleverly tempered to draw out the suspense, its arch Victorian verbiage notwithstanding. Or maybe it’s the times we live in, which lend the piece an escapist, almost campy, appeal. Yet Hamilton’s account of a scoundrel husband slowly driving his wife to the brink of insanity could fall easily into the category of bad theater if not approached with the proper sincerity and with considered attention to the nuances of British turns of phrase. Thanks to some wary direction by Corbin Green, and even more to the efforts of a quality ensemble of players, the Boiler Room Theatre production is a qualified success.
It’s not anyone but the playwright’s doing that his script tarries a little on the lengthy side, though possibly the original 1938 audience would have brought more built-in patience to the proceedings. Here, the three acts are compressed into two, and by the time a couple of unavoidably cartoonish London bobbies arrive to remand the wholly unlikable bad guy into police custody, we’re looking forward to bestowing hearty, if somewhat overdue, applause at the curtain call. It’s more or less obvious where this angst-ridden tale is going, but the fun is in getting there and observing how the actors execute the anxious dialogue.
Act 1 is a marvel of idiosyncratic gamesmanship, as the roguish Mr. Manningham, played with appropriate hubris by Alan Lee, lords his creepy paternalistic superiority over his pale-skinned delicate flower of a mate, enacted by Jennifer Richmond. Household objects go missing inexplicably and financial business gets mysteriously undone—whereupon the nefarious hubby starts to accuse his missus of mental imbalance. In her BRT debut, Richmond turns in an admirably controlled, subtly expressive performance, conjuring the sympathetic innocence of Grace Kelly in Alfred Hitchcock’s well-known film Dial
But as compelling a portrayal as Richmond gives, she’s all but one-upped by Nick DeNuzio, who enters the scene as a detective named Rough and emerges as her hard-bitten, caustically determined savior. DeNuzio limps about as if a wounded soldier, commanding every moment like some late 19th century forebear of Peter Falk’s Columbo, only more forceful, more demonstrative and more insistently heroic in his approach to the well-placed rhetorical question. His is a lively piece of acting, fully in tune with the role’s required bravado and unafraid to work the thriller ambience to the max.
There’s stellar support here as well. Kay Ayers-Sowell offers a classic turn as the well-intentioned housekeeper Elizabeth, who’s definitely on milady’s side but has to choose her words carefully with her suspicious master. Then there’s Rachael Bernard as the servant Nancy, whom we start to believe might be complicit in the husband’s scheme. She creates a beguilingly crafty character—a tartish manipulator who’d do anything to get ahead.
There’s probably only so much a theater company can do to keep cliché in abeyance when attempting an old war-horse such as Angel Street, but director Green consistently maintains the proper mood and earnest attention to plot while the cast unpeels the layers of exposition and motivation. He’s also got his actors on track where the persnickety British accents are concerned, with all the class distinctions readily decipherable.
The action is played on an intimate yet marvelous period set by Lewis Kempfer, who works in some appealing details—a quietly elegant staircase, atmospheric window treatments, hanging portraits, various objets d’art and the play’s signature gaslights (which pointed the way to the retitling of the 1944 film version starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman). Cat Eberwine’s costumes also successfully strive to capture Victorian authenticity. An edgy piano score, designed by Jamey Green, ebbs and flows throughout the evening, adding to the tension without ever trying to do more.
On the surface, Angel Street seems an unlikely vehicle to hold the attention of sophisticated theatergoers in a cynical modern world. And yet, as performed here, with its bygone sensibility, its deliciously identifiable archetypes and its undercurrent of paranoia, it makes for strong entertainment indeed. At least in this arena, we know who the good guys are, and we cheer them on accordingly.