It's a familiar story: Older man meets younger woman, "something happens"—and then the man gets ensnared in a convoluted plot that leaves several corpses behind.
Joseph Goodrich's Panic is more than just an homage to the classic thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock. Goodrich also explores the filmmaker's artistic motivations, his relationship with his wife, and some of the unsavory sides of his character. In the show's regional debut at the Park Square Theatre, all these elements serve as uneasy allies, rather than a unified theatrical event. Long stretches of talk, especially in a seemingly endless first act, threaten to undermine the clever twists of plot that follow.
Goodrich has created the barely fictional Henry Lockwood, who is in France for the debut of his latest thriller. While there, a French critic and aspiring filmmaker, Alain, conducts a series of interviews, while Lockwood's wife and longtime collaborator, Emma, convalesces from a heart condition. The thriller side of the story comes the night of the premiere, when a young French actress, Liliane, arrives at the door and startles personal secretary Miriam by claiming that the filmmaker raped her a year before.
The confrontation puts doubt into Miriam's mind, which is only intensified the next day, when Liliane's sister arrives on the scene—with a gun, even—and makes further accusations against the filmmaker. The play twists its characters into a dark, Hitchcockian hole from here, with red herrings and easy-to-miss clues scattered along the way (not to mention plenty of sly allusions to Hitchcock's films).
That's all well and good, but Panic opens and ends with long, long talks that drag the energy down and threaten to derail all the tension that has built up during the middle section of the play. The opening conversation between Henry and Alain has some life, especially as the filmmaker spins a plot full of energy and misdirection out of thin air, but that dissipates as the conversation turns to domestic matters and talk of famous Hollywood friends—mentioned by first name only. The first confrontation between Miriam and Liliane suffers from the same lethargy, even though there is danger (Emma is just in the other room) along with their game of verbal cat and mouse.
The plot builds well through the rest of the act and through most of Act Two, but again loses steam as the real plot is slowly recounted to us, even though an attentive viewer has probably put the pieces together anyway. Sure, it reflects the opening conversation between Henry and Alain, but we've been with the show for two and a half hours by this point—an extended recap really isn't needed.
The uneven material creates challenges for the small company. Old pros Stephen D'Ambrose and Barbara Kingsley craft complex characters whose relationship appears to go back decades. (That the two are real-life husband and wife may help, though I hope they've never been involved in a convoluted blackmail and murder plot.) Kingsley especially brings great power to the seemingly frail Emma, who takes command of the increasingly difficult situation with just the tone of her voice.
D'Ambrose crafts a character who is always thinking—about movies, plots, characters, his ideas on suspense—yet often doesn't think enough, which is how he gets entangled here so easily. The actor keeps the character living from moment to moment—relaxed at one turn, panic-stricken the next—which helps to build necessary tension.
The younger pair has a bit more difficulty. Gary Geiken's Alain often seems to be little more than a heavy accent, someone merely caught in the gears of the plot rather than a living, breathing character. The same goes for Jen Maren's Miriam. Her character and motivations remain a cipher throughout the play, and as much of the plot is on her shoulders, that makes for a frustrating ride.
The Park Square production, directed by Carin Bratlie, looks handsome. Kirby Moore's clean set and Kelsey Glasener's early-'60s costumes set the era perfectly, giving the actors a terrific space to play out the story. Yet without a strong, central character we care about, the play becomes a clockwork creation that unfortunately grinds its gears loudly along the way.