Talking about Thrills and Chills

David Ira GoldsteinWait Until Dark opened this past weekend, and it’s every bit the thriller I remembered from the movies! I talked with director David Ira Goldstein during rehearsals, and asked him a few questions about the process.

JW: This is the second time you’ve directed at Geva – the first was 2005’s A Marvelous Party: The Noel Coward Celebration, which you devised as well as directed. How are you finding this return to Rochester and Geva?

A Marvelous Party was a very special experience for me and my collaborators. With the support of the Geva staff, we were able to create the show in an embracing environment. A Marvelous Party has had a long marvelous partyand happy life since that 2005 premiere. We did it at twelve different regional theatres across the country and many other productions were done without us. It won the Jeff Award in Chicago, the Elliot Norton Award in Boston, the LA Drama Critics Award and the San Francisco Bay Area Critics Award, among others. And everywhere we did the show, Geva’s name was on it as the original producer. So much thanks is due to the folks here in Rochester for having the courage to believe in us at a very nascent stage. Coming back to Rochester is a delight after these years. So many new and hip places to go, so much great scenery and so many warm-hearted folks. And while there are certainly some new faces to learn here at Geva, I am surprised at the number of staff that are still here. Theatre is a high turnover career, so the stability of staff speaks so well to the environment at Geva. Also, you know, I live in Arizona – so basically any excuse to get out of Phoenix and Tucson in August is welcome! I took a long walk in Eastman Park on the lake today and it was a great restorative from the 115 degree temperatures I had in July.

JW: Wait Until Dark is a classic thriller, but many people are probably more familiar with the film starring Audrey Hepburn than they are with the play. Has that impacted your vision for the production?

I have been careful not to watch the film more than once, and that was several months before rehearsals. It is a very fine film, but after all, it came out in 1967 and I find that many people have a vague recollection at most. Over the last six months, as I told people I was doing the play, the response was generally, “Oh, that’s the one with Audrey Hepburn as the blind girl.” Unless someone has watched it recently, they don’t really remember the details or the surprises. Plus, we are doing a brand new adaptation that will have some surprises even for those who know the film or original play intimately. It is the same situations and characters, but beat by beat and line by line it is a different animal.

JW: Do you find that your approach to directing a thriller is different from your approach to other kinds of dramas?

Brooke ParksThere are certain universals that are important to me as a director no matter what the material: drama, comedy, musical, classic. The key for me is always honesty. Audiences can smell untrue acting a mile away no matter how far-fetched or unrealistic the action of the play. That is what distinguishes the theatre from all other media like movies or TV. The actors are living complex people in the room with us. It is at the basis of the theatrical experience and what draws me into a theatrical event even over spectacle or other elements. Those six people onstage in Wait Until Dark aren’t CGI, they are breathing with us in the room. Whether I am directing The Kite Runner or The Pajama Game, I always talk to the company about honesty in the acting. But there are different aspects to thrillers and mysteries that have to come to the fore. You must be absolutely committed to clarity of story-telling, you have to be patient with exposition and not short-change the set-up, and you can’t let the action go slack in the end.

JW: This play, even when you’re reading the script, is full of danger and suspense. You find yourself wanting to yell at the characters, to warn them. I love that about the play, but I can’t quite explain why. Do you have a sense about why we like suspense-filled plays and movies? What’s your favorite in this genre?

Thrillers get a bad rap. The best seller list is always full of them. Yet they aren’t often considered literary in the same way that classic mysteries have gained critical respect. They don’t often get to Broadway, yet when they do it is usually for a nice long run. Whenever we do one at Arizona Theatre Company, which is too infrequently, audiences flock to them. They do tend to get more critical respect in the movies, but that is certainly due in large part to the legacy of Alfred Hitchcock. As I have been working on Wait Until Dark, I am struck again and again by how Hitchcockian it is – and Hitchcock actually made the film of Frederick Knott’s other major play Dial M for Murder. A woman in peril (Susan), the sudden importance of mundane prop (the refrigerator), the use of a McGuffin (the doll…!) are all Hitchcockian tropes that work on us in a psychologically insinuating way. And a good scare also has a physiological pay-off – we actually release adrenalin into our systems which gives us a physical jolt.

I have a special attachment to Victorian thrillers and monsters. Over my tenure at Arizona, we have commissioned and premiered several “Victorian monster” plays as I call them, but they really are all thrillers. Steven Dietz’s Dracula and his Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure, Jeffrey Hatcher’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Suicide Club. All four were enormously popular and have all had dozens or hundreds of subsequent productions all over the world, and all four were nominated for Edgar Awards. I doubt that any of them will ever be considered great literary works, but all four are very intelligent and damn good audience pleasers. Not an easy thing to pull off for a writer. Wait Until Dark, although set in 1944, has many of the same attributes and characteristics including a true monster in Harry Roat from Scarsdale as its villain. As to what I think is the best thriller ever written for the theatre, I would have to say Sleuth. It’s perfect.

JW: This production is Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of Frederick Knott’s play. Mr. Hatcher has moved the setting from its original 1966 to 1944. How do you think that impacts the story?

bwTed KochIt affects the story in many interesting ways. By setting the play during the war, the characters have an outside pressure that isn’t present in 1966. The threat of sudden death from the War hangs over several of them. It also puts the play smack dab in the middle of the height of film noir, which is definitely where it belongs. The play is about darkness and light – about the hidden and the seen – qualities we strongly associate with film noir and the classic Hollywood movies of that era. It gave my marvelous design team wonderful opportunities to play right into that. But Jeffrey has done much more than simply move the time period by inserting 1940’s references. He has also boiled down the language into the terse, lean dialogue of the period films. And, being Jeffrey, he has added a healthy dose of humor to the play, which is especially effective with the character of Susan, who now has just an edge of the wise-cracking ‘dames’ of the period.

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