Despite the temptation in these troubled economic times to play it safe and concentrate on comedy-farces, Hopewell’s Off-Broadstreet Theatre has chosen to open its 26th season with a thriller, James Yaffe’s “Cliffhanger,” which dates from the 1980s. Yaffe is perhaps better known as a novelist than a playwright, with a particular interest in Jewish themes. Audiences might be happy to learn, though, that although “Cliffhanger” may be billed as a thriller — and indeed one character is apparently dead before the first scene is even over — the play has more the flavor of a classic farce than it does of a Hitchcock movie.
Henry Lowenthal, a retiring ethics professor in the philosophy department of an unnamed university, has been told by the university president that he will be appointed to a prestigious endowed lectureship and will be able to continue teaching well past retirement age. Despite the president’s support, the plan is undermined by the current head of the philosophy department, leaving Lowenthal disappointed and furious.
Lowenthal is clearly a good guy, and his wife, Polly Lowenthal, is a canny, pleasant, and intelligent woman, obviously skilled at finding ways to solve problems that minimize the accompanying strife and stress. Her behavior suggests this is not the first time she’s had to do some fancy footwork on her husband’s behalf. The new head of the philosophy department, on the other hand, is an outrageously obnoxious woman, lording it over this man she’s displacing, thus making his desire to behave like a decent person harder to accomplish.
Adding to Lowenthal’s stress are the shenanigans of a spoiled wealthy student who has failed Lowenthal’s ethics course and insists that he deserves to have his grade changed to a passing one simply because of who he is. As some of the action begins to get out of hand, the characters are joined by a police detective who senses something fishy is going on. It turns out, surprise, that the detective had also been a student of Lowenthal’s.
The older characters are committed to ethical behavior, the younger ones to opportunism. But this does not prevent the older characters from behaving unethically. Indeed, one of the paradoxes the dialogue plays with is how unethical you can be if what you’re doing is for the greater good.
To reveal any more of the plot would destroy too much of the play’s suspense — this is, after all, supposed to be a thriller. But it should be pointed out that as the audience enters the theater to partake of Off-Broadstreet’s signature coffee and dessert, what they see is a striking large living room. The handsome room stretches out to fill the maximum width it can. A Mozart symphony, played at low volume, adds to the serenity. I’m not usually a fan of background music, but this becomes the music that the Lowenthals listen to as the play proceeds, and the choices made here are definitely wise ones. The setting prepares the audience for the world they’re entering, though certainly not for what’s going to go on in that world.
Bob Thick has directed and designed “Cliffhanger,” as always, skillfully. Ann Raymond designed the costumes efficiently and attractively, as always.
All but one of the actors are Off-Broadstreet veterans. The professor is played by Doug Kline, here taking on his 24th role with Off-Broadstreet. (He has also served Off-Broadstreet as a director — he was responsible for last winter’s “Bedside Manners.”) Kline does a very good job of conveying his basic decency while fuming at the way he’s being treated and resisting the temptation to behave immorally. His wife is played by Mary Kemp, who has also appeared in many Off-Broadstreet shows. She handles adroitly her mission of being a nice person who is trying to circumvent those who aren’t so nice and who might even consider waiving her moral standards a bit to accomplish what needs to be accomplished.
The policeman, Dave DeVito, is played by Barry Abramowitz, another veteran of several Off-Broadstreet productions. He is skilled at being the nice-guy detective, whose work sometimes leads him where he doesn’t want to go. Vanessa Oates, who has acted at Off-Broadstreet a few times before, is the nasty professor. The one newcomer is Alex Angilella, the failing student. One character I haven’t mentioned who is critical to the plot is Socrates; not only do his ideas keep popping up in the dialogue, but the bronze bust that represents him and sits up center stage in the foyer gets to play a role too.
“Cliffhanger,” Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell. Through Saturday, August 14. Suspenseful drama. $27.50 to $29.50. Performances take place on Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons. The theater opens for dessert at 7 and at 1:30 p.m., respectively. Evening shows begin at 8 p.m.; matinees at 2:30 p.m.. 609-466-2766 or www.off-broadstreet.com.