Chad Allen and Robert Cuccioliin Temporary Help(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
Chad Allen and Robert Cuccioli
in Temporary Help
(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
Were Temporary Help a movie, which playwright David Wiltse probably hopes it will be eventually, it could be the kind of tingly genre exercise that attracts the same cult following as something like The Last Seduction or Red Rock West. Had it appeared 50 or 60 years ago, it would have had tremendous appeal in that it avails itself of the James M. Cain formula that was so much a part of the earlier film noir years. It's a sordid tale, like The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity before it, in which a good-looking stranger arrives at a deceptively serene household where the wife harbors reasons for wanting someone to assist in disposing of her husband. But since Temporary Help has sneaked into an off-Broadway berth and not onto local screens, it's possible that the taut but offbeat piece will end up sneaking out of town just as quietly.

If so, that would be a minor shame, because Wiltse knows what he wants to do and -- within the narrow limits he sets himself -- does it well. Jolting the audience with a rifle shot just before the lights bump up, Wiltse introduces Karl Streber (Robert Cuccioli) and his wife, Faye (Margaret Colin), hovering over a covered corpse in their Cascade, Nebraska kitchen. The victim, they immediately reveal, is the latest in a series of hired hands whom Karl has murdered after luring them into a slightly complicated cattle-purchasing scam from which he derives their proceeds. (We quickly see how ironically clever is the title Temporary Help.)

The fly in this particular tin of Bag Balm is that Faye, who seems to have found each of the unfortunate dupes attractive, has long since tired of Karl's homicidal habits. She's also worn to a frazzle over his verbal and physical abuse. Karl regularly knocks Faye around because he's jealous of her interest in the itinerant workers; he's also envious of her appeal to Sheriff Ron Stucker (William Prael), who's hanging around the farm because he's beginning to get suspicious of the just-opened bank accounts that the missing sojourners have left behind. Complicating matters is the fact that Karl himself seems to have a sexual interest in at least some of these poor fellas, although he'd never fess up to it.

The already tense situation intensifies when Vincent Castelnuovo-Tedesco (Chad Allen), who acts a lot dumber than he is, is invited to put his shoulder to the farmhouse wheel and his tired body into a second-floor spare room. Faye begins to hanker for him, or so it seems. When she eventually seduces him, she brings up the get-hubby idea and dangles in front of Vincent his participation in the farm, which she claims is in her name. Karl, aware that there's hanky-panky in the bedroom, doesn't do much about it because -- among other reasons -- he figures he can recruit Vincent to join a counter-scheme. Vincent, for his part in this conniving trio, indicates that he could and would sell himself to the highest bidder.

So it's a cat-and-mouse game that Wiltse has set in motion on Troy Hourie's convincing idea of what a modest farmhouse looks like -- but who's the cat and who's the mouse is kept up in the air. Karl is a monster, for sure, but he's a skilled monster. Toying with Faye, he seems to know just when he's gone too far in baiting and batting her; he pulls back with a comic turn of phrase that goes some way towards explaining why she never walks out on him. Faye is all but reduced to wounded submission but is still enough of a coquette, particularly when coming on to Vincent, to suggest that she's able to take care of herself. Vincent, who refers to a father whom he's had to silence and also to a handily dealt-with former boss, initially looks like the easy mark in a three-card monte game but also gives off hints that he's more likely a card sharp.

Margaret Colin with Chad Allenin Temporary Help(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
Margaret Colin with Chad Allen
in Temporary Help
(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
As the three of them try singly and in various combinations to get the upper hand and the sheriff tries to catch them at it, Wiltse contrives to have a truck rigged with a bomb sit ominously and unseen outside the kitchen door. He also sends people in and out of the house when others think they've safely away somewhere. During a theater season where most plays either have no intermissions or have them but not at particularly knuckle-biting moments, Wiltse brings his first act to a chilling finish when he sends lovers Faye and Vincent upstairs, confident that they're alone, and then brings Karl in to fold himself into a living-room chair. So canny is Wiltse at his plot finagling that the audience is kept on the qui vive throughout and is rewarded at the end with a satisfyingly unexpected conclusion. The less said about that, of course, the better -- except to note that this is where sound designer David A. Arnold and lighting designer Chris Dallos really get to show their mettle.

Director Leslie L. Smith's shrewd work helps induce a feeling of pleasant discomfort in the audience, and the cast members have responded very well to what they've been asked to do. Robert Cuccioli, whose bio points out that he prompted the formation of a fan club when he began touring in Jekyll & Hyde 10 years ago, is no longer swinging his long and lanky hair around in the way those fan-clubbers liked so much; he has clipped it short. What he is doing, though, is combining Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde into one moody villain. He's scary because he keeps bringing out Streber's ability to cloak his menace in charm.

Margaret Colin, who usually plays more urban types, walks through much of the play with her shoulders bent and her head bowed as women do when hoping to slip past their volatile husbands unnoticed. For Colin, costume designer Mattie Ullrich has put together a wardrobe of sun dresses in which the actress can seem kittenish and alluring, the sort of woman a handy man would like to get his hands on. Chad Allen, who looks as if he's just hit the stage after pumping lots of iron, gives a performance neatly balanced between "aw, shucks" and "watch out!" William Prael's sheriff has the right suggestion of small-town smarts -- although, if there's any trick Wiltse has missed in his nicely turned narrative, it's bringing the sheriff into the surprising denouement.

There really isn't a good deal in Temporary Help that hasn't been seen before. But, much as Vincent tinkers with Karl's truck, Wiltse has tinkered with familiar plot parts so that they are once again explosive.