This revival of Frederick Knott's 1966 thriller is grim, gruesome and very scary. And that's just the acting. Anyone who can emerge from this evening of theatrical terror without recurring nightmares must be made of stern stuff.
In "Wait Until Dark" Marisa Tomei plays Suzy Hendrix, a young woman cruelly tormented by a group of men who adopt assumed names and characters. If the aim of the evening is to make us empathize with the heroine, it is a roaring success. By the end of its 100-odd minutes, we know just how she feels.
The only thing standing in the way of complete identification with her plight is that her character is blind and therefore, unlike us, does not have to witness the tics, mannerisms and poses that parade before her. Seldom can a serious disability have seemed so enviable.
Knott's play, shortened and modernized for this revival, is no work of genius. It is not even as clever a piece of schlock as his "Dial 'M' For Murder." But it could, as the 1967 movie version with Alan Arkin and Audrey Hepburn showed, be enjoyable enough in a hokey, over-the-top way.
The rather strained plot concerns a musical doll full of heroin that Suzy's husband has innocently brought from Canada to their Lower East Side apartment, believing it is for a sick child. When Suzy is alone, the crooks stage an elaborate and utterly incredible hoax to try to get her to hand over the doll.
They pretend to be a friend of her husband's; the father and jilted spouse of her husband's supposed lover; and a policeman. To no one's surprise, all of this leads to Suzy being confronted by the vicious, dagger-wielding leader of the gang.
Quentin Tarantino plays this bad guy. Such is his performance that you wonder why he needs a knife when he could just beat his enemies to death with his heavy wooden acting.
As a movie director Tarantino may be the new Alfred Hitchcock, but as a stage actor he is the new Ed Wood. He has the vocal modulation of a railway station announcer, the expressive power of a fence post and the charisma of a week-old head of lettuce.
Whatever credibility the play might have vanishes in his presence. It is simply impossible to believe that Suzy would not give him the doll, or anything else he might want, just to get rid of him.
Presumably in an effort to spare Tarantino as much embarrassment as possible, his co-stars seem reluctant to show what real acting is like. Stephen Lang, as the inevitable crook with the heart of gold, is strangely uncertain.
Marisa Tomei, for her part, is more bland than blind. Though she has mastered the physical demands of the part, she never really conveys the idea of someone whose senses are attuned to the world around her, picking up invisible signals.
The result is that Leonard Foglia's production is about as tense as a burst balloon. The basic elements of a thriller fear, suspense, an atmosphere of gripping uncertainty are entirely absent.
And without them, you start asking the kind of questions that the show simply can't answer. Why doesn't Suzy just give them the doll? Why don't the crooks just kill her and search the apartment themselves? Why would anyone want to see Quentin Tarantino in a play?
That old thrillmeister Alfred Hitchcock knew a lot about suspense, and perhaps even more about surprise. Who would have expected Janet Leigh, nominally the star of his "Psycho," to be rubbed out so early in the movie - and in a shower?
The star of the revival of Frederick Knott's "Wait Until Dark," which opened at the Brooks Atkinson Theater last night, is Marisa Tomei, playing a young blind woman whose life is threatened by unsavory thugs. (Come to think of it, most thugs are unsavory - but no matter).
Now, what do you think? Will Tomei be alive at the end, stumbling if not kicking? Make a bet, and I'll bet you're right.
Knott earlier gave us the rather better, but, as I noticed from the recent London revival, still somewhat dated, "Dial M for Murder," and he tries hard in this 1964 Broadway vehicle, originally for Lee Remick and Robert Duvall, to make our flesh creep. For me, then as now, while the flesh was willing it remained resolutely uncrept.
Even a piteously unsighted Audrey Hepburn in the superior movie version, with Alan Arkin as sadist-in-chief, left my hackles unrisen and my withers unwrung. So perhaps I start out unsympathetic to this little grand guignol with all its dirty works, and muddy plotting.
A photographer has returned from a Canadian trip, duped into carrying back a doll stuffed with heroin. For reasons I've never been quite sure, this is hidden somewhere in the Greenwich Village apartment he shares with his blind wife.
The details are a little blurred, but the play starts off with a bang and a scene of murky mayhem, and it ends with a rather good scene of even murkier mayhem - wait until murk! - but in-between, things not only get tedious, but suspense (so important in such matters) is virtually suspended.
The plot is extraordinarily vague, with red herrings smelling up every blind alley, and such plot refinements as the chief villain at one point disguising himself to fool a woman that he knows is blind! Wasted effort. Like much else in the rambling narrative.
Characterization proves as muddled as the plot, and to call the quality of the writing stilted is to be unnecessarily charitable. Now hokum is hokum, and one doesn't expect it be Samuel Beckett, but surely even hokum has its standards.
The acting was less than so-so, and a lot of the blame for should probably fall on the head of the director, Leonard Foglia. Now unless you have been living in the outer reaches of Patagonia, you have probably heard the poor advance word on Quentin Tarantino, making his Broadway debut as the head crook and bottlewasher, Harry Roat.
He was far better than I had been led to expect - in fact he was merely terrible. A condition, admittedly, not made easier by his unfortunate air, probably quite unconscious, of seeming extraordinarily well-satisfied with himself. It added an odd touch of hubris to commonplace mediocrity.
But in all fairness to the comparatively inexperienced Tarantino, Foglia got every bit as bad a portrayal from Stephen Lang, who we know to be normally an excellent actor, and the direction even seemed to nullify Tomei herself, who again has given some fine stage performances, but here only seems to come to life towards the end.
So like Lang and Tomei, Tarantino was perhaps not entirely to blame. And absolutely no one can blame the very efficient basement setting provided by Michael McGarty, replete with the necessary refrigerator light and those awful Venetian blinds which play a crucial, if boringly sophomoric part, in the schoolboyish vagaries of Knott's twisted plot.
Presumably, Quentin Tarantino is about to do something just awful to Marisa Tomei, something that hurts a lot and leaves a gory mess. But when the stars of the new revival of Frederick Knott's ''Wait Until Dark'' face off in the thriller's climax, in that famous scene when the lights go out, it feels less like a cue to jump out of your seat than to nod off.
Playing a sadistic, murderous thug to Ms. Tomei's beleaguered young blind woman, Mr. Tarantino seems menacing to nothing except possibly Mr. Knott's script. Whether raising his voice in deranged fury or softly promising to commit unspeakable tortures, he registers at best as merely petulant, like a suburban teen-ager who has been denied the use of his father's Lexus for the night.
As the acclaimed director of the movies ''Reservoir Dogs,'' ''Pulp Fiction'' and the recent ''Jackie Brown,'' Mr. Tarantino brought an exhilarating burst of oxygen to the American crime movie. Here, as an actor making his Broadway debut in the production that opened last night at the Brooks Atkinson Theater, he creates an inverse effect, draining the adrenaline from a play that if it isn't scary, isn't anything.
And his able and appealing co-stars, Ms. Tomei and Stephen Lang, are deflated by his very proximity. The 34-year-old Mr. Tarantino, who says he last performed on stage in a community theater production at 17, seems to be not so much acting as just hanging out, as though a big Broadway house were a moderately cool place to mark time until the clubs open. He was roasted by critics during the Boston tryout of ''Wait Until Dark,'' and reports of his inadequacy have not been exaggerated.
But even audience members hoping to witness the comeuppance of a Hollywood hotshot are unlikely to get much of a thrill out of this slack exercise in suspense, which has been directed by Leonard Foglia. A hit on Broadway in 1966 and the basis of the 1967 movie starring Audrey Hepburn, ''Wait Until Dark'' today comes across as a tediously contrived wind-up toy that yells ''Boo!'' just before it runs down.
Like Mr. Knott's earlier ''Dial M for Murder,'' this drama has a juicy central gimmick and a dry, formal way of setting it up that recalls the old-fashioned mysteries of writers like John Dickson Carr. ''Wait Until Dark'' pits the 28-year-old Susy Hendrix (Ms. Tomei), who was blinded by a recent accident and is still adjusting to sightlessness, against a gang of criminals led by the evil Harry Roat (Mr. Tarantino), who are desperate to get their hands on a heroin-filled doll that has wound up in Susy's possession.
How Susy got that doll, and why it is now missing from the Lower East Side apartment she shares with her husband, Sam (James Whalen), takes a lot of time to explain. So does the very elaborate ruse that Harry and his associates (Stephen Lang and Juan Carlos Hernandez) devise to obtain the doll.
Suffice it to say that the scheme involves the three criminals' pretending to be other people and inventing a ridiculous system for signaling one another with Venetian blinds. It also allows Mr. Tarantino to show up in different disguises and to speak in unconvincing Southern and Italian accents. Susy, after a period of unaccountable gullibility, comes up with her own equally complicated counterplot, with the assistance of the feisty little girl from upstairs (Imani Parks).
None of this seems necessary. Why don't Harry and his henchmen apply strong-arm tactics from the beginning rather than behave like schoolboys playing spy? Why doesn't Susy get out of Dodge while she can? Admittedly, suspense formulas are often built on outlandish violations of common sense. As Maureen Nolan, a film editor, once observed, they usually produce lines like: ''O.K., whatever we do, let's stick together. Now, you go this way, and I'll go that way.''
If the tension level is high enough, you're willing to accept such brazen illogic; it can even make the whole self-terrifying process more fun. But without the threatening core of evil that Mr. Tarantino's character is meant to supply in ''Wait Until Dark,'' it's impossible to work up much of a sweat over Susy's fate.
Anyway, Ms. Tomei, who exudes plucky determination from the beginning, seems quite able to take care of herself. She's a fine, vibrant actress, and heaven knows she works hard here, but she isn't well cast. The appeal of Audrey Hepburn in the part was of seeing her fragile, ladylike persona turn tough and muscular, and Ms. Tomei's performance allows for no similar transition. And while Mr. Lang offers a shrewd, enjoyable take on your standard-issue criminal galoot, he quite understandably despairs of trying to justify his character's last-minute conversion to goodness.
It seems to have been Mr. Foglia's intention to turn ''Wait Until Dark'' into a sort of nasty fun house, in ways that might evoke the giddy, splashy mayhem of Mr. Tarantino's films. The rapid-fire series of opening images have an entertainingly lurid quality that, unfortunately, evaporates quickly. Brian MacDevitt's scene-dividing flash-bulb lighting and Darron L. West's sound effects, which make adroitly creepy use of everyday city noises, create the right frame for the evening, but the production inside it doesn't match.
An eleventh-hour scream is the payoff for both an implausible and an overly intricate buildup in the new Broadway revival of "Wait Until Dark," a late-season entry whose success will depend on whatever audience still exists for pulp theater. With Marisa Tomei and (most intriguingly) Quentin Tarantino top-billed for the limited run, Leonard Foglia's expertly designed production is by no means the disaster that the out-of-town Boston reviews may have led one to expect. Whether it will amount to anything more than a lucrative curiosity, on the other hand, remains open for debate: In our current slash-and-run culture, Frederick Knott's 1966 play doesn't so much take place (largely) in the dark as seem a product of the Dark Ages.
There's something positively quaint 32 years later about Knott's plotting, which is far too pointlessly dense for the chills that, after all, are the evening's raison d'etre. Despite Foglia's generally cracking pace (both intermissions have, wisely, been scrapped) and the altogether separate charge of Brian MacDevitt's ace lighting, the script remains nine parts set-up to one part showdown in a protracted battle over a musical doll laced with drugs. Though the faceless urban facade of Michael McGarty's set could not be more contemporary, "Wait Until Dark" suggests why it has been years -- even decades -- since Broadway regularly hosted the sorts of thrillers that still proliferate across the Atlantic ("The Woman in Black" and so on). Perhaps this production's more natural home might well be London, where Tarantino and not James Cameron is king of the world.
Can the perpetrator of "Pulp Fiction" act onstage? The question is largely academic -- his character, Harry Roat, is hardly Hamlet, notwithstanding a penchant for play-acting that does little more than pad the script. Inasmuch as it's a vehicle for anyone, "Wait Until Dark" belongs to its blind victim, Susy Hendrix (played by Tomei), and Tarantino obsessives should be prepared to find their hero playing second fiddle to an East Village damsel in distress. That the part is pretty silly has little to do with Tarantino, who brings to it a surprisingly strong voice and a virtually constant sneer. (Why Roat's fondness for disguises faced with a blind woman who can't see what he's wearing anyway?) What the actor doesn't do is camp it up in obeisance to any existing claque. As psychos go, his is unexpectedly straightforward; entering with sunglasses, hair slicked-back, he's no more or less cheesy than Alan Arkin in the 1967 film.
Tomei, by contrast, must fight memories of an Oscar-nominated Audrey Hepburn, whose nobly sustained panic is the chief interest of a film that otherwise hasn't aged well. A theater regular making her Broadway debut, Tomei gives a likable, if not wildly interesting performance as a 28-year-old car crash victim who claims to be able to "hear" groups of three when, that is, she isn't demonstrating a most peculiar facility for memorizing phone numbers. If she's less fragile than Hepburn -- at one point, her Susy inadvertently gives photographer husband Sam (James Whalen) a bloody nose -- that's in keeping with the vaguely PC tendencies of the revival, which extend to the racial diversity of the casting and to the presence in the final scene of a policewoman. This Susy is a woman warrior in the making, at first groping, then battling, her way about the stage: She's a modern creation trapped in a plot as antiquated as Susy's method of defrosting the fridge.
Of the rest, Stephen Lang muscles his way through the part of Roat's thuggish sidekick (Juan Carlos Hernandez completes the trio of terrorists) without matching Richard Crenna's screen charm, which lends the faintest of sexual tension to the movie. As Gloria, the none-too-helpful 9-year-old neighbor whose propensity for inexplicable tantrums would seem to demand instant therapy, Imani Parks gently finesses the play's most ludicrous part. This child, we are told, wants "something like this every day," which suggests that as danger junkies go, she's off the menu and, as such, is the single scariest aspect of "Wait Until Dark."