nytheatre.com review by Heather J. Violanti
January 25, 2009
Comfy and cozy as an old tea kettle, the production of The Lodger playing at the WorkShop Theatre is more Agatha Christie than Grand Guignol, and no one seems bothered one bit, least of all the audience, who greeted it with warm applause. It may move a little slowly, and it lacks the harrowing suspense of the Hitchcock film, but it's an agreeable little mystery nonetheless. A bit dusty around its doily-ed edges, this version of The Lodger somehow manages to transform a grisly tale inspired by Jack the Ripper into a disarmingly quaint domestic drama. It's like going to see Madame Tussaud and meeting Mary Poppins instead. You expect to be frightened but end up charmed.
The Lodger was originally a novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes, published in 1913. Playwright Maire Martello has adapted the potboiler source material with straightforward, if somewhat prosaic precision. There's a few too many scenes, and too much exposition, to keep the suspense steadily building. It doesn't help that director H. Bart Goldberg has staged prolonged, silent scene transitions that sometimes feel like awkward gaps. Still, nothing can diminish the eerie aura surrounding the mysterious Lodger, who may or may not be "the Avenger," a serial killer inspired by Jack the Ripper.
Unlike some adaptations, Martello retains the novel's setting of 1880s London. It was not a cozy time, and yet it often comes across as such, with all that fussy furniture and frilly clothes. This production makes a virtue of dwelling on rich period detail, marvelously evoking late Victoriana on a small budget. Craig Napoliello's ingenious set suggests a threadbare, yet dignified, lodging house, replete with dark wood paneling and dark green wallpaper. The stage left wall is a scrim that cleverly dissolves under the lights, revealing the Lodger's spartan rooms. Costume designer Isabelle Fields portrays the shabby gentility of the characters, two of whom are former servants, with understated grace, while lighting designer Mike Riggs captures the spooky glow of gaslight.
The ensemble works well together. Under Goldberg's capable direction, they navigate subtle shifts between comedy and suspense with efficiency, if not always aplomb. George Innes lends raffish charm to the character of Robert Bunting, adding a touch of Alfred Doolittle to this butler-turned-lodging house-owner. Kristen Lowman is endearing as his harried wife, Ellen. Amanda Jones plays Daisy, the innocent ingénue, with refreshing spontaneity, while Michael Guagno makes a cheerful, if deliberately clueless, detective. John Martello brings a sinister chill to Mr. Sleuth, the strange Lodger who has a habit of taking midnight strolls.
The production does not revel in blood, or horror, but rather in the relationships between its characters. In the end, you might not solve a mystery, but you can spend time with a loveably eccentric family. And that is the most startling thing about The Lodger.