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Sunday, March 15, 2015

Break a Play!

From the Theater Vault Dept.: I’m afraid I had it in for Ira Levin going into this piece, which I wrote six years after witnessing the horror of Levin’s one-performance Broadway flop Break a Leg. It was a ghastly play that featured “that pig Jack Weston” in the lead – as characterized by Michael Connolly, another actor in the piece. “Every time anybody else gets a laugh,” he told me as the play came together in rehearsal, “Weston throws a fit and insists that he be given the line.” It hardly mattered, and, despite the presence of  talent like Julie Harris, Rene Auberjonois, and Charles Nelson Reilly, who directed, the piece died a deserved death. Below are an advance and a review of Albany Civic Theater's 1985 production of Levin’s Veronica’s Room.


IT USUALLY WORKS LIKE THIS: A fat packet of information crosses my desk. I call some of the principals involved: director, actors and so on. Possibly read the script. By the time I’m in my seat on opening night. I’m intimate with the histories of most of the people I see onstage.

Margaret King and Giselle Sigond
So why is Albany Civic Theater behaving so strangely?

We got a terse notice informing us that Ira Levin’s thriller Veronica’s Room opens Wednesday. It went on: “The two-act play takes you on a series of twists and turns that will keep you on the edge of your seat until its nail-biting conclusion.”

Fair enough. I called Margaret King, one of the four cast members. “I can’t talk about the play,” she said, explaining that she didn’t want to give anything away. Fair enough, I returned – who wants to spoil a good surprise? “Tell me about the character you play,” I said.

“I can’t,” she replied. “But it’s very exciting for me as an actress.” She has directed six shows for ACT and appeared in another half-dozen with that group, and is usually bursting with info. “A few years ago I directed Dick Harte in I Do, I Do. Now he’s directing me in this show.”

Giselle Sigond wasn’t much more helpful. “It’s a strange show,” she said. “People aren’t what they seem to be.”

“What’s the show about?” I asked.

“I can’t tell you. I’ll tell you this, though. I play a young coed who’s an aspiring actress and is asked by an older couple to go to this old house and pretend I’m someone named Veronica who died there a number of years earlier, in order to convince Veronica’s dying sister ... well, you’ll have to see it.”

That being the common conclusion, it only remains to report that the cast also includes Franz-Joseph Alvord and David Smith, and that the show runs for two weeks. Tickets are available at CBO outlets or by calling the box office.

And, as Margaret King pointed out. “It’s not for children. Not this show.”

Metroland Magazine, 21 March 1985


AS YOU ENTER VERONICA’S ROOM, the current production at Albany Civic Theater, you know something untoward is afoot. The furniture is covered with cloths, which only happens in horror stories, and there’s something not quite right about this kindly old Irish couple, the Mackeys, who have asked young Susan and her boyfriend to stop by. There’s a dying woman in the other room whose sister, Veronica, died many years before. The dying woman is going off her head and wants to see Veronica again – wants her forgiveness. Would Susan consent to impersonate Veronica and do that? She’s the spitting image, etc.

Seemingly casual conversation is tossed about as the suspense builds, reaching an ominous pitch by the end of the first act. When the second act begins ... and there’s the trouble. Despite the awful flaws in the play, I can’t bring myself to spoil the surprise. Perhaps that’s what playwright Ira Levin counts on, because it’s about all Veronica’s Room has going for it as a play: some big surprises that verge on the tasteless.

ACT’s production, however, has many things going for it, most notably the great performances by each of the four people in the cast. Margaret King and Franz-Joseph Alvord are the Mackeys, with a suitable amount of Republic Pictures-style exchanged glances. She, especially, has the kind of creepiness you found in, say, an elementary-school teacher whom you wished would like YOU but who, along with everyone else, probably was out to get you.

Giselle Sigond is the young girl air-headed enough to go along with the scheme – what would suspense be if not for such gullible folk? She loses some of her credibility during her more hysterical scenes, all of which are played fortissimo: she could lower her voice without losing her energy. David Smith’s characterization is deceptive at first, but proves to he quite deft by the play’s conclusion. Dick Harte shows a thoughtful, experienced hand with the direction, which more than does justice to the play.

And that’s the problem. The play. Ira Levin is the worst kind of hack writer: the kind who persuades the tabloid-reading public that creepy perversion can take the place of substance. At least Stephen King is a storyteller who knows the art of spinning a yarn. All Levin has up his sleeve is a surprising ace or two, the stupidity of which remains after the shock has dispersed. His best-known works, Rosemary’s Baby and Deathtrap, gave us Satanism and homosexuality as shockers and, particularly in the latter case, in a cheap and exploitive manner. Veronica’s Room serves up incest and necrophilia, with dime-novel justification. Furthermore, Levin tantalizes us in the beginning of the second half, offering a possibility that could, with Twilight Zone tactics, prove acceptable. As we’re on the verge of believing it, he yanks it away, and we feel betrayed. The sensationalism Levin then provides only reinforces our disappointment. If you see the play, you’ll see what I mean.

Metroland Magazine, 28 March 1985

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