Corrections or additions?

This article by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper

on March 11, 1998. All rights reserved.

Listening for `Voices in the Dark’

Thrillers are the hardest genre to write, even harder

than musical comedy," says playwright John Pielmeier. "It’s

all about the domino effect, and if one domino falls you have to go

back and fix everything."

Could this be the reason why it has been almost four years between

the world premiere of Pielmeier’s play "Voices in the Dark,"

at Seattle’s Contemporary Theater, and the play’s second production

at the George Street Playhouse?

Yes, says the accomplished playwright and author of the hugely successful

"Agnes of God." At a recent interview at George Street, Pielmeier

admits to being busy reworking his "Voices in the Dark" script.

This, however, doesn’t appear daunting to the play’s leading lady

Gates McFadden, whose brief visit during the interview adds a touch

of charm. And nothing seems to be troubling the play’s director, Chris

Ashley, who also joins us for a few minutes during a rehearsal break.

"Is he dumping a lot of new material on you?" I ask McFadden.

"As much as he can," replies the actor whom many audience

members will undoubtedly recognize from television and film appearances

as Dr. Beverly Crusher on "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

"I’ve done a lot of new plays," she says, "but what’s

great is that there isn’t the tension here that there can be with

a new play."

In "Voices in the Dark," McFadden retains her doctor’s credentials.

This time she plays Dr. Lil Anderson, a popular New York City radio

talk show psychologist who tries to deal with her marital problems

while in the midst of an increasingly disquieting, sensation-oriented

career. There is tension afoot for McFadden’s endangered character

when she becomes stranded during a blizzard in her husband’s cabin

in the woods in upstate New York.

Need we say that the play’s psychologist may not be alone as she had

expected? A caller, who claims to have murdered several women, has

tracked her down and wants her help. The other actors in the play

— who may or may not be a threat to McFadden’s wellbeing —

are John Ahlin, Peter Barlett, Lenny Blackburn, Alec Dennis, Nicole

Fonarow, Jonathan Hogan, and Robert Petkoff.

Now that’s tension. But perhaps no more so than the situations that

Pielmeier has conjured up for his other plays, including the provocative

"Agnes of God," the vivid war drama "Boys of Winter,"

and the mystery thriller, "Sleight of Hand."

Will "Voices in the Dark" make it to Broadway as did his previous

three plays? Pielmeier, who does not remember his Broadway experiences

as particularly happy times, officially takes the attitude: "I’m

not thinking about that right now." This may stem from his early

days as an actor. "As an actor, I didn’t enjoy my life," he

says. "I was very unhappy, until I wrote `Agnes of God.’"

Pielmeier’s talent as an actor is backed by an impressive list of

regional theaters where he performed, including the Actors Theater

of Louisville, the Guthrie Theater, and the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

What happened to change Pielmeier’s profession from actor to playwright?

Pielmeier says he was acting at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center

National Playwright’s Conference when he decided to submit his script

for "Agnes of God" for a staged reading. Pielmeier’s time

had come, and he acted with the confidence of someone who understood

the O’Neill’s focus and its artistic agenda. "I knew the kinds

of things that worked well there, such as a setless, three character

play," he says. "Agnes of God," about a young nun who

has been convicted of killing her own infant immediately after its

birth, was co-winner of the 1979 Great American Play contest, prior

to its premiere in 1980 at the Actors Theater of Louisville. After

several regional productions, "Agnes of God" enjoyed a 17-month

run on Broadway during the 1981-’82 season, and was also notable for

stellar performances by Elizabeth Ashley, Geraldine Page, and Amanda

Plummer. Pielmeier subsequently wrote the screenplay for the successful

film version, directed by Norman Jewison.

If Pielmeier acknowledges that nothing he has written

since "Agnes of God" has been equally applauded, he continues

to encourage those who would and "must" write plays for a

living. However, Pielmeier does admit he also returns to acting in

rare circumstances. Most recently he was in a one-man show he wrote

called "Willi," based on the life and teachings of Willi Unsoeld,

an ordained minister and mountaineering guru from the Northwest who

climbed Mount Everest and was a leader of the Outward Bound movement.

Although I know that tension is a driving force in Pielmeier’s thriller,

it is clear as I look at Chris Ashley’s smiling face that he is a

director more inclined to relieve than instigate tension in rehearsals.

Ashley, a recipient of the Obie and Lucille Lortel Awards for his

outstanding direction of Paul Rudnick’s "Jeffrey" (both onstage

and on screen), seems not the least bit harried by the stress of the

upcoming previews. Noted as the director of the one-woman shows "Fire

in the Mirror" by Anna Deavere Smith at the New York Shakespeare

Festival, and "Blown Sideways Through Life," with Claudia

Shear, Ashley also directed the delightful but under-appreciated Off-Broadway

musical, "Das Barbecue." This latter show apparently sold

Ashley to Pielmeier. Now Pielmeier’s director of choice is making

his directorial debut at George Street. And although "Voices in

the Dark" has been optioned for New York, Ashley says, "I

am less concerned less about the play as a future commercial piece

than I am about making it work here."

Who wouldn’t love to write a thriller. But where do the ideas come

from? Back around 1991 a friend of his at a regional theater told

Pielmeier that his theater was looking for a good new thriller. Pielmeier

recalls saying to himself, "I guess I’ll have to do something."

Although Pielmeier recognizes that, unlike the anguish of "Agnes

of God," the angst of "Voices in the Dark" will probably

not be regarded as an "important play," he knows that there’s

a market among audiences for a thriller that thrills. "No, `Voices

in the Dark’ is not going to change anyone’s life," says Pielmeier

with a chuckle. "It’s for fun."

Born and raised in Altoona, Pennsylvania, Pielmeier went to Catholic

University, where he earned his degree in drama in 1970. He earned

an MFA in playwriting at Penn State. If Pielmeier is modest about

his subsequent honorary doctorate degree from St. Edwards University,

he exhibits the same self-effacing attitude when talking about his

life. As the son of a grocer and a housewife, neither of whom had

any theatrical inclinations, Pielmeier still cherishes their response

to his decision to go into the theater — "It sounds like a

very responsible profession," they told him. Wow!

While speaking of his own youth, Pielmeier asks parents not to bring

children under 12 to his "Voices in the Dark." Because of

its explicit sexual references and implicit violence, he says if this

were a film, it would be R-rated. Director Ashley says that this is

a thriller that will involve its adult audiences in the visceral way.

"Even with no blood and zero gore, it still comes across as tremendously

scary and shocking," says Ashley. While Pielmeier is the first

to admit how few thrillers are completely successful, he also admits

that he is unsure how scary audiences actually want a play to be.

"This is a pretty scary play. So just don’t anyone tell me that

I scared them too much," he says.

Set designer David Gallo has created the play’s primal

and "completely organic" log cabin. Gallo, whose sets for

"Jackie," and "Bunny Bunny" Off-Broadway were dazzling

exhibits in themselves, promises to create another equally visceral

experience for "Voices in the Dark."

Although the cabin in the play may look like the place where writers

choose to write their plays, Pielmeier says he wrote "Voices in

the Dark" in "my own little home, somewhat in the woods."

He lives there with his wife Irene O’Garden, also known as Irene O’Book,

a poet and writer of children’s books.

How exactly has the conspicuous successes and failures of his plays

impacted Pielmeier’s life? "I really enjoy working in the theater

as a kind of challenging game. But when it ceases to be fun I don’t

like to do it anymore," he says, with a childlike honesty. Pielmeier

says he makes his living writing primarily for TV and film. Some of

his more noteworthy screenplays have included "Agnes of God,"

"The Stranger Within," "The Last POW," "The Bobby

Garwood Story," and an adaptation of Dominick Dunne’s novel, "An

Inconvenient Woman."

But Pielmeier is also candid about his last two experiences on Broadway

where, he says, the fun factor was sucked out. This disappointing

response has made Pielmeier, if not totally bitter, then tentatively

reticent about setting himself up for another disappointment. "I

didn’t write for a long time," he says, confessing that it has

been more than 10 years since he presented a play in New York. "I

only want this to continue if it is going to be a good experience,"

he says, allowing that he would prefer that if the play moves at all,

to move from George Street to an Off-Broadway venue.

Even as Pielmeier expresses his unwillingness to be placed in the

Broadway arena again, he says he would like the result of this experience

at George Street to be a turning point for him personally.

"I want to feel more comfortable writing again for the theater,"

he says, "and then to start writing some more serious things."

Perhaps Pielmeier need only wait and listen to his own voice in the

dark to hear the ideas for his next play.

— Simon Saltzman

Voices in the Dark, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston

Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. Opening night for the psychological

thriller by John Pielmeier that runs through April 4. $24 to $32.

Friday, March 13, 8 p.m.

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