Some plays are bad. Some plays are so bad they're good. And then there's Emlyn Williams' hoary 1930s thriller "Night Must Fall," which can't make up its mind which it wants to be.
In the first act, the play takes a certain pleasure in its own preposterousness. In the second, however, the pleasure evaporates.
"Night Must Fall" is set in the remote English countryside. The place is so dull that, in James Noone's designs, the colors range from dark gray to light gray. This, presumably, is meant to indicate the emotional and intellectual range of the characters.
Mrs. Bramson, a professional invalid, keeps her money in a very obvious hidden safe, presumably in the hope that a passing psychopath will be tempted to steal it.
The inevitable maniac, played by Matthew Broderick, is an Irishman, Dan. He already has got the maid pregnant.
He is also the prime suspect in the murder of a local woman whose headless body has been found in the garden. Since he carries around a sealed head-sized box, it seems just about possible that he will get around to murdering Mrs. Branson, as well.
"Night Must Fall," in other words, is a thriller without suspense. It has no surprises, no clever plotting. Even the simple appeal of wondering what's going to happen next is absent.
The only twists and turns are those performed by the increasingly restless audience. The only mystery is what on earth persuaded Tony Randall's National Actors Theatre to revive it, or Matthew Broderick to perform in it.
The one hope the play has is that the actors can play up the more tongue-in-cheek moments of Williams' script and create a gallery of amusing wackos. To a small extent, John Tillinger's cast takes this desperate option.
Judy Parfitt as Mrs. Bramson has some fun with absurd lines like "Nobody here understands my body." Patricia Kilgarriff creates a well-honed battle-axe of a housekeeper. And Seana Kafoed gives an intelligent performance as the brainless maid.
But Broderick in the central role is playing a different game. He seems unsure whether he's supposed to be scary or funny, and ends up being neither.
The problem is not just that he's saddled with the worst Irish accent since Marlon Brando in "The Missouri Breaks." It's that he's also trying and failing to act out a broader Irish caricature, becoming a leprechaun without a pot of gold.
Dan is supposed to be an evil, insidious charmer, working his way into Mrs. Bramson's trust with his gift of the gab. But he comes across merely as a simpering simpleton.
Though it's hard to make nonsense of a plot that is already so silly, Broderick does manage to miss a key part of the story.
Even Williams sensed that the play has a basic credibility problem. Since it is so obvious that Dan is a murderer, how come Mrs. Bramson's smart niece doesn't suspect him?
The answer is that she does, but that she's so mesmerized by Dan's magnetic animal sexuality that she protects him. Since Broderick's Dan has all the animal sexuality of a sickly slug, however, none of this makes sense.
As the play stumbles on, you begin to envy Mrs. Bramson. She, at least will be be murdered before the final curtain, freeing her from the painful necessity of seeing it through to the bitter end.
There are two terrific "buses" in "Night Must Fall," the 1935 thriller being revived by the National Actors Theatre at the Lyceum.
"Buses" is a term invented by Val Lewton, the brilliant producer of low-budget Hollywood horror films in the 1940s, to describe moments of sudden shock when the audience jumps out of their seats.
One bus in "Night Must Fall" happens toward the end, when a frightened old lady has been left alone in her remote country house. I won't give away when the other "bus" arrives, but get to the Lyceum in plenty of time and settle calmly in your seat.
Unfortunately, between these two buses stretches the desert of the play itself. It belongs to a genre of thriller that has not worn especially well. We know very soon who the villain is, and interest lies in waiting to see if the victim can escape danger.
"Night Must Fall" seems promising for a bit. We're in a grandiosely cozy Tudoresque country villa with white walls, black beams and lots of stuffed furniture; A rich, cantankerous invalid (Judy Parfitt) is used to bossing around a collection of types familiar to all readers of, say, Agatha Christie: a spirited, pretty, mildly rebellious niece (J. Smith Cameron); the niece's dim, stuffy fiance (Michael Countryman); a sassy, give-as-good-as-she-gets housekeeper (Patricia Kilgarriff); a weepy, klutzy maid (Seana Koford); a tart nurse (Jennifer Wiltsie); a Scotland Yard inspector looking for a missing rich woman last seen at a nearby hotel (Peter McRobbie).
John Tillinger directs all the tut-tutting and fussing with comic verve. Well, cool, we think, we can settle in for a nice old-fashioned English thriller complete with class distinctions as rigid as the cliffs of Dover.
Things begin to go wrong, artistically, when nice, young Matthew Broderick turns up impersonating the sinisterly charming Dan, who works at that local hotel and has, it seems, impregnated the maid. Wearing a cap and a leather jacket, smoking a cigarette and speaking in a vaguely Irish brogue - that is, showing all the signs of lower-classness, circa 1935 - Broderick is not so much mis-cast (though he is) as saddled with the impossible task of playing an absurd character.
Dan is supposed to exude an irresistible rough charm that unaccountably melts the crusty old dragon Mrs. Bramson
The playwright similarly botches the character of the niece, Olivia. She is at once suspicious of Dan and spots his manifold insincerity. But by the second act, Olivia is ditching her tweedy fiance and engaging in long, intimate, soul-searching chats with Dan about the things that made what he is.
All that said, the production has its fun moments. It's the play that lets us down.
''I'm a pretty little fellow,'' sings Matthew Broderick, alone on the stage of the Lyceum Theater, and at that moment, he certainly is. His eyes shut, his voice sweet and liquid, the open-faced Mr. Broderick has never looked or sounded so much the choirboy, as he croons a phrase from the dusty sentimental favorite ''Mighty Lak' a Rose.''
Maternal instincts should be running riot in the audience. But since Mr. Broderick's character has just committed, and obviously relished, a brutal murder, responses are a tad more complicated. Yes, he's a coldblooded killer, and yes, he's a pretty little fellow of inexhaustible charm. One doesn't rule out the other, and Mr. Broderick, in a beautifully balanced performance, gets to have it both ways.
So, for that matter, does this utterly disarming revival of the 1935 melodrama ''Night Must Fall,'' which opened last night under John Tillinger's direction.
The Welsh-born playwright Emlyn Williams translated a lifelong obsession with grisly murder cases and a more recent one with a charismatic drifter he had befriended into this tale of a psychopathic hotel bellboy and the women who love him. It was, by the standards of the day, strong meat. ''As one chap to another, don't you think it's just the teensiest, weensiest bit unpleasant here and there?'' teased Noel Coward in a letter to Williams.
Of course the very point of ''Night Must Fall,'' in which Williams starred both in London (where it was a hit) and New York (where it wasn't), was that the unspeakably unpleasant can become compelling spectator sport. In the age of the posthumous stardom of JonBenet Ramsey, it's hard to argue that things have changed.
Yet with its conspicuously well-made dramatic architecture and groaning lines like ''Come away, my darling'' and ''You can't stay in this house tonight!,'' Williams's potboiler would seem to invite only campy revivals. That's why the greatest thrill of this new incarnation, even counting that moment in the second act when the whole audience screams, is in seeing how a mothball-scented property can be turned anew into agile and seductive theater.
With a little script tweaking, a subliminally surreal visual presentation and a stylish cast that understands the difference between a wink and a grimace, this production from Tony Randall's National Actors Theater works engagingly on two levels. It starts off as a spooky fun house, with the obligatory creaks and shrieks. But as it continues, it makes respectful breathing space for Williams's considerations of the magnetic appeal of the lurid and of the idea that extraordinary evil can take the most ordinary forms.
The show isn't perfect: it doesn't quite bring off its principal climaxes, and it overexaggerates some of its comic servant business. But it's a surprisingly delicate and compelling treatment of the sort of material usually delivered as ghoulish parody.
The tone is established with an interpolated prologue in which thunder claps, a scream resounds, a shadowy figure is perceived through a window and voila, you have the basic alphabet of a specific suspense genre, the kind on which Hollywood once thrived. The designer James Noone's representation of a comfortable sitting room in a woodland house in Essex, England, is correspondingly executed entirely in black and white, as are the period costumes by Jess Goldstein. (Note for Broadway trend spotters: the same palette is found in Trevor Nunn's current production of ''Not About Nightingales.'') And spine-tingling music (by David Van Tieghem) underlines ominous revelations.
The implicit message is that you have entered a passe world in which even unsavory subjects were presented with comparative innocence, in terms as simple as black and white. Our relation to that world would seem to be roughly that of the characters onstage to ''East Lynne,'' the famously stilted 19th-century novel that is being read aloud to an elderly woman when the play begins.
That woman is the hypochondriacal Mrs. Bramson (Judy Parfitt), who might as well have ''victim'' stamped on her forehead. She is peevish, rudely dictatorial to her servants and restless young companion, Olivia (J. Smith-Cameron), and rolling in cash she insists on keeping at home. Enter, smiling, young Dan (Mr. Broderick), a chipper Irish lad (Welsh in the original) who has impregnated Mrs. Bramson's maid, Dora (Seana Kofoed), and been summoned to account for himself.
He does; he stays. His arrival happens to coincide with the news that a woman has disappeared from the hotel where he works. And what is in that mysteriously sealed hatbox he brings with him?
You can probably imagine what follows, down to the moment where Mrs. Bramson finds herself all alone in her big, dark house. But in between Mr. Broderick, Ms. Parfitt and Ms. Smith-Cameron enact an uneasy dance of attraction and repulsion that occurs less in clear black and white than in gray zones.
Williams was partly sending up the fascination with sensational acts of violence, that mix of prurience and displaced guilt that is here amusingly embodied by the reactions of Olivia's patient, ineffectual suitor, nicely played by Michael Countryman, and Mrs. Bramson's cook, Patricia Kilgarriff. But Williams was also seriously acknowledging the lure of the amoral, reflected in Olivia's increasing attraction to a man she believes to be a murderer.
Ms. Smith-Cameron has the toughest role, a sort of eroticized Nancy Drew part, but she plays it with a canny directness, lightly flavored with an acerbic artificiality. Ms. Parfitt, who played a similar role in the film ''Dolores Claiborne,'' is wonderful, bringing an unseemly glimmer of sensuality to her disagreeable imaginary invalid's relationship with Dan. And when she sinks into rabid fear, Ms. Parfitt conveys it so harrowingly that you start to feel tainted for having rooted for her demise.
Mr. Broderick's terrifically smart, fully engaged portrait of a sociopath may unnerve audiences much as Robert Montgomery, traditionally known as a suave romantic lead, did in the same role in the 1937 movie. There has always been a feral cunning and confidence in Mr. Broderick's stage and screen portrayals of precocious boys and boyish men.
Here, he wears that cockiness as the gleaming shell on a murky, swirling interior. This boy can be as smooth as Astaire, but when the shell cracks, what you see is not a cold executioner but a thwarted, egocentric child, and it helps explain Olivia's continuing protection of a deranged murderer.
What Williams was asking, in his deceptively jocular way, was that we own up to the part of us that will always be drawn to darkness. The all too charming Mr. Broderick makes it unsettlingly easy for us to do so.
Two-time Tony Award winner Matthew Broderick has proved he's a great charmer on stage, but his easy appeal works against him in the role of the seductive psychopath in the National Actors Theater revival of Emlyn Williams' 1935 English thriller "Night Must Fall." Broderick's slightly mischievous good looks and borrowed Irish brogue lend him a certain boyish menace, as though he's plotting a naughty game of doctor, but it's hard to imagine him committing a truly serious crime, let alone two brutal murders. The production, directed by John Tillinger, is stylishly designed to resemble a black-and-white film. Yet lacking a convincing killer, it stoops to scare tactics that occasionally startle though fail to provoke genuine Hitchcockian suspense.
The action begins with a seismic crackle of thunder and a flash of (what has now become commonplace on Broadway) male genitalia. Through the window of an English cottage living room a naked man can be seen burying a body in the middle of the night. The house be-longs to Mrs. Bramson (Judy Parfitt), a miserly invalid who wakes the next morning to find a police investigation going on in her backyard. An old widow from the town has been reported missing, though Bramson can't see what this news has to do with her or why it should get in the way of her routine scolding of the servants.
One of her maids, Dora (Seana Kofoed), has just confessed to being pregnant out-of-wedlock. The male culprit is Dan (Broderick), a sweet-talking new bellhop at the nearby inn, who apparently has been keeping company with the woman whose disappearance has alerted Scotland Yard. Bramson summons the offender for a lecture on paternal responsibility, but instead of chiding him falls for his sentimental con game.
To the consternation of her dependent niece, Olivia (J. Smith-Cameron), the old woman not only shows the conniving fellow where she keeps her money but hires him as her new companion.
Though it's painfully obvious that the new employee is after the contents of Bramson's safe, it's never clear what exactly the women want from him. The crotchety, wheelchair-bound matriarch becomes uncharacteristically nurturing in his presence, while Olivia, who's stalling her bland, eager-to-get-married beau Hubert (Michael Countryman), grows increasingly fascinated the more she discovers about Dan's criminal past.
Psychologically, it never seems to add up. For the play to work, the actor playing Dan (a role Williams wrote for himself and played in the West End and on Broadway) must give off a sinister sexual undercurrent. "Night Must Fall" dramatizes the way we literally court, in all the word's libidinous implications, our own fears. Broderick's Dan, dashing though he is, lacks the requisite subliminal pull. He may be dangerous or even violently deranged, but Robert Downey Jr. he's not.
Parfitt does a fine job as the vainly arrogant Bramson, particularly in her final moments, when she experiences the terror of being all alone in an empty house. Her dread quickly intensifies, fueling itself, until the man she's paid to take care of her finally shows up as her worst nightmare.
Smith-Cameron's studious appearance perfectly suggests Olivia's sexual discontent, though her performance sheds little additional light on her character's mysterious behavior. The supporting cast is generally fine, particularly Patricia Kilgarriff as the wisecracking maid and Countryman as Olivia's devoted if humdrum suitor.
The visually attractive production features James Noone's lonely Essex woods bungalow and Jess Goldstein's costumes. Brian MacDevitt's lighting and David Van Tieghem's music make the anxiety of imminent nightfall palpable.
Tillinger has taken some liberties with the play itself. In addition to substituting the above-mentioned nude scene for Williams' superfluous courtroom prologue, he's turned the symbolic fire Dan ignites at the end into a literal one. Neither change is earthshattering, but they suggest the director's need to further sensationalize melodramatic material that a more subtle, character-based approach could have trans-formed into something truly scary.