For its 209th production Hopewell’s Off-Broadstreet Theater has chosen to repeat a thriller, Frederick Knott’s “Wait Until Dark,” which it had previously produced in 1986, not long after Bob and Julie Thick started the theater. First produced in 1966, “Wait Until Dark” was made into a successful movie the following year. Knott, who is perhaps best known for the extremely popular “Dial M for Murder,” lived in Princeton for a time — note the telephone number in “Wait until Dark,” which begins with 924.
Producing a thriller that is so well known presents a serious challenge to a theater — how do you surprise an audience who knows what’s coming next? As someone who had not seen the play or the movie, I may have been at an advantage, but the general reaction of the audience suggests the Thicks have scored another triumph.
For those who need reminding, let me begin with the fact that the play centers on Susy, a blind woman whose Greenwich Village apartment presumably contains a considerable stash of heroin, hidden in a child’s doll that her husband had brought from Canada as a favor to a woman who has since been murdered. Three criminals are out to get those drugs, and the plot centers on Susy’s ability to hold them at bay. As the play opens, she seems barely able to cope with ordinary life, let alone the machinations of a group of criminals; by the second act she may still be hampered by her blindness, but her brain has clearly gone into high gear. She compensates for her blindness by hearing what the other characters are not saying — they have no idea how much of their actions she is able to understand.
Even for those who know the plot, this production is downright scary. As the title suggests, the lighting — or, rather the occasional lack of it — plays a key role. Usually in the theater a blackout means that the action has stopped, but not here. And a blackout, of course, changes the balance of power between Susy and her tormenters. Susy is ably played by Lauren Brader, an Off-Broadstreet veteran who has also been active at the Bucks County Playhouse. It cannot be an easy job to come on like a mild-mannered woman anxious to please and then show the skill to overcome her disability as she works to outwit three evil- minded antagonists.
Gloria, the child who lives upstairs, drops in on Susy occasionally. Gloria has been hired to help Susy out with household chores, which at first she seems to do with a large chip on her shoulder. But when things get scary, and Gloria realizes how much help she could potentially be, she rises to the occasion. Gloria is ably played by Callie Holtermann, a sixth grader. Adam Neal, a newcomer to Off-Broadstreet, appears as Susy’s husband, Sam.
The three criminals have planned their attack by splitting up the jobs that need to be done. Mike Talman’s approach is to try to charm Susy into giving him the doll. Most of the time he pretends to be on her side, helping defend her against various threats. Todd Reichart, making his second appearance with Off-Broadstreet, plays Talman so skillfully, making the con man seem charming and innocent, that it is easy for the audience to forget what his real purpose is.
The second con man is played by Michael Iacovelli, also an Off- Broadstreet veteran. He pretends to be a policeman named Sgt. Carlino, who is in the neighborhood because he is investigating potential threats and various difficulties that seem to be hovering around Susy. The third villain is Harry Roat, Jr., played by Steve Lobis, who has been seen in many previous Off-Broadstreet productions. As the ringleader, and the nastiest, of the three criminals, he manages to make those who were thinking things might take a turn for the better doubt whether that could ever happen.
Bob Thick has directed, and as audiences have come to expect at Off- Broadstreet, the action is clear — except where it’s meant to be confusing, and there it definitely is. Thick is responsible for the design of the show — regulars will recognize various components of the set, and Ann Raymond has again designed the costumes.
Wait Until Dark, Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell. Through Saturday, May 23. The theater opens for dessert an hour before curtain. $27.50 to $29.50 includes dessert. 609-466-2766 or www.off-broadstreet.com.