Thrillers are harder than they look

Image courtesy Showboat Players
​Writing a thriller for the stage isn't as easy as it looks.

Actually, writing a thriller, period, takes a lot more work than it looks. There are plenty of demands on the creator, with the constant need to juggle the gears of the plot and character development. Get the first wrong, and the whole thing collapses before the end of the show.

Like farces, the plots in thrillers don't often stand up in the light of day, but the goal is to keep the audience moving along for the whole ride. And if the second doesn't work, well, you had better hope that the first is so invigorating that no one cares what happens to the people in the story. Otherwise, we're left with a lot of "I don't care what happens to these people" moments. And plenty of glances at watches.

Which is all a long preamble for the shows I took in last weekend. Both Panic (at Park Square) and The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (from the Showboat Players) play with these conventions, providing knowing winks along the way. The first, however, gets stuck in the gears of the plot and the characters, while the second bulls along with delightful, giddy energy.

Panic starts out with a terrific premise--a Hitchcockian thriller starring a Hitchcock-like film director--but gets bogged down with characters who definitely fail the second part of the equation. The play spends too much time away from the Hitchcock character and too much with his secretary, who stands in for all of the endangered women from the various films. We want to know what makes him tick, not those around him.

Of course, the Sweeney Todd story has been around for more than 150 years, and it has been refined over time, leaving behind a wonderfully wicked tale that is maliable enough for creators to put their own stamp on it. That's what Stephen Sondheim did, and later, Tim Burton took that version and added his own style to the proceedings.

That gave The Demon Barber of Fleet Street a leg up from the beginning, but there was also the sheer joy with which the company of University of Minnesota students bit (ha) into the material. The clockwork was there, but so were the characters, even if they were in a somewhat reduced, melodramatic form.

Stage thrillers have a long history, and it's a form that I love to death. Unpacking mysteries is a lot of fun. It's just that, like an all theater, you have to remember to create a full package for the audience, or you'll lose them before the end of the first act.