By Eric Marchese | Special to the NB Indy
Ask theater fans to identify Lucille Fletcher and they’ll tell you she penned “Sorry, Wrong Number,” which garnered her success and fame as a radio play in 1943. Five years later, Fletcher turned it into a novel and also expanded it for the big screen.
During the 1940s, Fletcher specialized in radio plays and, essentially from the ’50s on, novels. In 1952, Fletcher adapted “Wrong Number” for the stage, along with her hit 1941 radio thriller “The Hitch-Hiker.” The two-act suspense play “Night Watch” is her only other play, and it stands alone as the only work she wrote especially for the stage.
Well-directed by veteran director Sharyn Case, Newport Theatre Arts Center’s new production gives theater fans a chance to see the seldom produced 1972 script and to appreciate Fletcher’s talents all the more.
Like “Wrong Number,” the story depicts a woman who stands alone in trying to convince others of an imminent, lethal threat – and who is put through the wringer, her emotions whipped into a frenzy.
Elaine Wheeler (Holly Jones) and husband John (Vince Campbell), a successful Wall Street broker, enjoy wealth and comfort in their posh mid-Manhattan townhouse.
But appearances can be deceiving. Elaine battles chronic insomnia born of her Beverly Hills life with her first husband.
The splendor of their lives is shattered by his gruesome death in a car wreck, which triggers a nervous breakdown in Elaine. Moving to New York City and remarrying only loosely conceals the effects of this trauma.
Sparking her jangled nerves is a new shock: During a raging thunderstorm, Elaine casually glances through a window at the rear of the house. Looking across the courtyard, she sees a man being murdered.
Elaine and John summon the police, who uncover zero in the way of evidence of violence, not to mention a corpse.
“Night Watch” then follows Elaine’s attempts to discover what she witnessed and urge others to take action. A day later she sees another corpse – yet, based on her fragile emotional state, no one takes her seriously.
Suspense-loving audiences will detect elements of such Hitchcock films as “Rear Window” and “Dial M for Murder” – and, even more prominently, of the 1938 play “Gaslight,” so popular it was filmed twice during the ’40s.
Like Elaine, audiences at NTAC are given a welter of confusing events and circumstances to sort through. Is Elaine suffering another breakdown, or has she actually witnessed two murders? We’re kept just as off balance as Elaine, and Case and her expert actors do the trick in an enjoyably slick, engaging production.
If Elaine is indeed being “gaslighted,” Fletcher gives us plenty of suspects. Top of the list is John, so overprotective he isolates her. More so than domineering, Campbell is thick-skinned, overbearing and judgmental, his John clearly a cold fish. Sarah Hoeven is equally sketchy as Blanche, Elaine’s best friend, whose work as a nurse positions her to keep close tabs on Elaine’s physical and mental state.
Hoeven approaches but never crosses the line of Blanche patronizing Elaine and humoring her suppositions. She and Campbell have us suspecting the worst kind of betrayal while wondering what would motivate them to stoke the poor woman’s paranoia.
Also in the mix are loyal, longtime servant Helga (Beverly Crain), eminent psychiatrist and insomnia expert Dr. Tracey Lake (Trungta Kae Werner), and the excitable Sam Hoke (Taylor James Bannert), who runs a nearby business.
Eccentric neighbor Curtis Appleby (Randy Calcetas, in a breezy turn) posits that Elaine is the target of a grisly practical joke, delivering the choice line “Murder is my hobby.”
Investigating detective Lieutenant Walker (Andrew Margolin) clearly sees Elaine as a loony, spending more time humoring her and debunking her assertions than doing any serious digging. She insists she’s “not one of those crazy ladies who sees things,” yet as far as Walker is concerned, she’s only “stirring up trouble.”
Margolin and, in a dual role, Bannert, provide just enough humor, delivered with pungent New Yorkese, to relieve the tense stream of bloodshed and mayhem riddling the dark underbelly of the Wheelers’ seemingly charmed life.
As the story’s focus, Jones holds our attention throughout. The script reveals Elaine’s traumatic past gradually, with events unfolding like a nightmare. While she’s clearly on the edge, riddled with self-doubt, unable to trust her sanity, Jones wisely veers away from making Elaine flighty or shrill, presenting her as a generally sensible person baffled by unnerving events.
Everyone in Case’s ensemble does a wonderful job of playing everything close to the vest. None strike us as either flat-out guilty of pushing Elaine to the brink of sanity or, by contrast, as free of all suspicion.
They keep the guessing game going right up until the closing moments, which provide a plausible explanation while throwing a curveball few could predict.
The folks at “the Cliff Drive playhouse” bolster the script with top-notch production values, just as with every NTAC staging.
Jim Huffman’s set design serves up a home brimming with tasteful elegance and comfort, accented by Leslye Wanthal’s Picasso, Matisse and Modigliani works that guests are assured are priceless originals, not copies. Tom Phillips and Larry Watts’ lovely costumes add to the visual splendor, and Josh Serrano’s lighting and Brian Page’s sound design put the finishing touches to this well-crafted staging.
Unless you’ve already seen “Night Watch” on stage or caught the 1973 film version (starring Laurence Harvey and Elizabeth Taylor as the Wheelers), you’ll be hard-pressed to solve this puzzle – so come to Newport Beach and treat yourself to a holiday-time show that provides a welcome change of pace to the current crop of Christmas-oriented fare.
Newport Theatre Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach. Through December 12. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (including intermission). Tickets: $20. Ticket purchase/information: (949) 631-0288, www.ntaconline.com.
Eric Marchese has written about numerous subjects for various publications since the mid-1980s but is best known for his coverage of Orange County theater.