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The Irish Repertory Theatre plays this classic British melodrama to the hilt. logo
Brian Murray and Laura Odeh in Gaslight
(© Carol Rosegg)
When reviving an old melodrama, you can go one of two ways: downplay the histrionics and contrivances in an attempt to achieve a more contemporary, more realistic style, or go for broke and play the piece to the hilt. For better or worse, the Irish Repertory Theatre has taken the latter tack with Patrick Hamilton's Gaslight.

Retitled Angel Street when it premiered on Broadway in 1941, this well-known British thriller is about Bella (Laura Odeh), a lovely young woman married to the sinister Jack Manningham (David Staller), who is slowly driving his wife out of her mind in order to gain full possession of the London house in which the couple lives. But there's more than real estate on the line here: The villain wants the place all to himself so he can continue searching for the precious rubies that were hidden somewhere by the former owner, a woman whom Manningham (under another name) murdered 15 years earlier in a failed attempt to steal the jewels.

Whew! "They don't write 'em like they used to," I remarked to my theater companion at intermission. His response: "And now we know why." Gaslight would surely be a hoot if presented as an out-and-out spoof with Charles Busch or Lypsinka in the role of poor, put-upon Bella. While director Charlotte Moore and company stop short of such a completely campy approach, there's still a lot of overacting going on here. As a result, the audience is unsure whether to be caught up in the piece or to laugh at it.

Staller is ideally cast as Jack in terms of manner, voice, and physical appearance, but much of his performance is so exaggerated that it seems more appropriate to one of those old movie spoofs on The Carol Burnett Show. Odeh has some nice moments in the play's less hysterical passages, but when terror is in the air, she does a lot of indicating and her voice tends to become strident.

On the plus side, the wonderful Brian Murray -- sporting more facial hair than usual -- offers a well-gauged characterization of Rough, the police detective who guesses Manningham's evil plot and does what he can to save Bella from going crackers. Unfortunately, Murray seemed somewhat unsure of his lines in the preview performance under review.

Also involved in the high-stakes proceedings are Patricia O'Connell as the Manninghams' stalwart housekeeper, Elizabeth, and Laoisa Sexton as their rather slutty maid, Nancy. (Does the oily Manningham come on to Nancy? What do you think?) Moore seems to have given all of the actors free rein, which would explain why some of the performances are much broader than others.

The physical production can scarcely be faulted; James Morgan's set for the Manninghams' drawing room is so magnificently well appointed that you'll want to don Martha Hally's gorgeous costumes and move right in, while Brian Nason's expert lighting is warm and creepy by turns. Together, these artists have created the perfect setting for a less-than-perfect performance of a very tricky play.

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