Matthew Reddin
In Tandem’s “Nightmare Room”

Well-acted, but no thrills

A formulaic progression and tension-killing flashbacks limit the ability of the theater's 15th anniversary opener to enthrall.

By - Oct 5th, 2012 03:10 pm
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Catherine (Mary C. McLellan, L) and Helen (Libby Amato, R) tussle mentally and physically in “The Nightmare Room.” Photo credit Mark Frohna.

Two women play mindgames as they compete for the heart of their shared lover in The Nightmare Room, In Tandem’s 15th season opener.

This “chilling psychological thriller,” a British transplant, turns out to be a formulaic puzzle that inspires curiosity, but not suspense, despite the cast’s best efforts.

The premise of John Goodrum’s The Nightmare Room, adapted from an Arthur Conan Doyle story, is that Catherine (Mary C. McLellan) has kidnapped Helen (Libby Amato), her former best friend, for sleeping with her husband. Catherine locks Helen and herself in the “nightmare room,” a stark, white, soundproof chamber containing nothing but two chairs, a table and two glasses. One contains water, one deadly poison.

Both McLellan and Amato slip neatly into these roles. McLellan plays Catherine with a calculated instability, one that descends deeper into real madness as the play continues. Amato does the opposite. She begins in a terrified frenzy and gradually reveals a colder, more sinister persona.

These compelling performances paste over some of the play’s weak points, but can’t repair them. The Nightmare Room holds interest, but doesn’t thrill.

(Note: Minor spoilers follow, deliberately kept as vague as possible. Continue at your discretion.)

While both actresses in “The Nightmare Room” perform well, the play’s structure doesn’t reward those performances. Photo credit Mark Frohna.

The Nightmare Room feels mechanical, and a little cliche. The plot twists and developments follow a logical pattern. The first act builds to a “shocking” reveal where Helen reverses the power dynamic and takes control. The second follows a parallel track: Helen runs the show until one final twist, right before the ending.

While the exact details aren’t predictable, they also aren’t especially surprising. You expect the twists, especially the one at the end, so you don’t anticipate, you just wait.

Frequent flashbacks reduce tension and impede momentum. The device itself isn’t the problem. Some scenes, including one set in childhood, reveal hints of both women’s manipulative natures and are masterfully acted.

But those flashbacks often interrupt the present-day action’s most compelling moments. No matter how important or effective the vignette, if you cut away from a fight scene and jump back in moments later, that scene won’t work.

Moreover, some of the flashbacks are gratuitous or overwrought. Take McLellan’s dream sequence. In almost any other medium (short story, film, etc.), a dream sequence can be vivid and surreal. On stage, we get McLellan sitting in a chair, eyes closed, talking to herself. It’s just bad theater, as are a series of micro-flashbacks, just a few seconds long, that contrast their former affection with their current loathing. The regular flashbacks tell us this; the micro-flashbacks are overkill.

The cast and director Chris Flieller brought a valiant effort to bear on The Nightmare Room. The play still fascinates as it unfolds, despite its stumbling blocks. But a thriller it’s not.

In Tandem’s The Nightmare Room, the first show of its 15th anniversary season, opens tonight (Oct. 5) and runs through Oct. 21. Tickets are $22 or $26 depending on date, with a $2 discount for students and seniors. For more information, visit the In Tandem website or call (414) 271-1371.

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