Peter Colley’s I’ll Be Back Before Midnight is making an area premiere as Cortland Repertory Theatre’s season finale, even though it is one of the most often-performed stage works in the world. How it could have been neglected we’ll get to later. Because it’s new to us, audiences might be confused by the billing as a “thriller comedy” promising chills and laughter. This does not mean it is a spoof. What we get are laughter in one place, and things going bump in the night in another. We also get plenty of surprising reversals; think Sleuth and Deathtrap. With the play’s local unfamiliarity no wiseacre is going to whisper in your ear who really done it as you’re going in.
Despite this restriction, the exposition in the first half-hour is so heavy you could shovel it, and later a shovel does appear in the action. There are lots of gothic details about gossip, possible murders, ghosts, omens and a creature who lurks at the nearby quarry. There is a loaded shotgun displayed prominently on the wall above the fireplace.
A yuppie couple, Jan (Melissa Macleod Herion) and Greg (Jason Bowen), have rented a decrepit house somewhere in “the country” to escape the rigors of “the city.” He’s a scholar of ancient stone weapons. Jan has just been released from a hospital where she was recovering from a nervous breakdown. We see many things from her point of view, and when we hear that she is in some danger of hallucinating, we have to entertain the idea that what we see on stage might not really be happening. Even more useful, Jan might fall into a catatonic state and just stiffen, not hearing anything else said (sure to be important) in the room. Or maybe she’s faking it, and everyone else thinks she’s out of it.
As with Sleuth and Deathtrap, the action is set is some nether past where no one has access to contemporary technology, like a smart phone. I’ll Be Back Before Midnight was published in 1985, so Jan and Greg play LP recordings on a hi-fi console. Their big, bell-ringing phones have neither push buttons nor a dial. This means speakers must announce each call, “Hello, operator, get me the police.” And the electric power has a way of cutting out at the worst time, more frequently in the second act.
Like Agatha Christie, playwright Colley has a way of writing dialogue that makes you feel you’ve heard one thing, but maybe something different was said. Take, for example, the owner of the house, loquacious hayseed George Willowby (Bill Coughlin). He’s heavy with lurid information, interrupted by his self-congratulatory belly laugh, but when you try to remember the details of his family relations, we begin to notice inconsistencies. Even Jan, on whom we’re pinning our emotions. She’s in the remote house, apparently against her will, because Greg thought it a bargain and “restful,” but she knows more about the house than she is told.
About no one do our perceptions change more than a late-arriving visitor to the house, glamorous blonde Laura Sanderson (Charlotte Kate Fox), Greg’s sister. Before Laura arrives we know that Jan, a little on the dowdy side, resents Laura’s superior attitudes about style and decoration. Once on the scene, Laura has a way of slipping into something more comfortable that turns out to be clinging and slinky. Yes, indeed, Greg and Laura have a deeper relation than we expect from siblings, but Colley is not challenging the incest taboo.
None of what has been relayed may sound like grist for comedy, but there are laughs aplenty, especially in the first act, buoyed by the general air of menace and tension assured by Dustin Charles’ taught direction. Perhaps one percent of the time Colley and Charles really are spoofing the genre with false sounds and visual cues of danger. More often Colley borrows reliable visual gags from farce. Jan and Greg will be doing something completely innocent, to be interrupted by some mishap. This causes them to assume stances toward one another as if they have just been engaging in X-rated behavior, when an interloper, Laura or George, barges in and jumps to the wrong conclusion.
George himself becomes a continuing if unsettling source of comedy. Local actor Bill Coughlin, who won his Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) Award appearing at Cortland Repertory, is in his prime here. Paradoxically, George’s jokes are deadly and his laughter is off-putting. But his many tics, like a mugful of whiskey instead of coffee, and his lip-smacking delight with the grossest material—like decapitation by buzz saw—work superbly.
Midnight’s success depends on all that Melissa Macleod Herion gives to Jan, getting the bejesus scared out of her, mustering plucky resolve and, when time allows, getting off some funny moments. Jason Bowen as Greg and Charlotte Kate Fox as Laura deliver excellent portraits of opacity and ambiguity.
Once again artistic director Kerby Thompson proves the effectiveness of scare-‘em-ups in a small space, even without total darkness. Scenic designer Cully Long and lighting designer Greg Solomon know how to use the room. Stage combat choreographer Nancy Kane assures that there are loud bumps on the night.
So if I’ll Be Back Before Midnight has been so popular, why haven’t most people heard of it? Answer: It’s Canadian. The only internal sign is when Jan refers to a side road as a “concession,” a term from Ontario law. Midnight is one of the most widely produced stage works of all time, with successful runs in Beijing and Nairobi as well as Winnipeg and Saskatoon.