Monday, October 9, 2017

Gaslight: Stage and Screen

Kim Stauffer and Mark H. Dold in Barrington Stage Company's Gaslight. (Photo: Scott Barrow)

The 1938 British chestnut Gaslight is seldom revived; most people know it – if at all – by the 1944 George Cukor movie, which won Ingrid Bergman her first Oscar. (A previous version, made in England in 1940 with Diana Wynyard, shows up on Turner Classic Movies every now and then.) Barrington Stage has chosen the play to close its 2017 season, and it’s the first time I’ve seen it live since another regional group nearly three decades ago produced it under its original Broadway title, Angel Street. Gaslight is a psychological melodrama, set in London in the 1880s, about a woman whose husband is slowly driving her to madness by convincing her that she loses or hides objects in their home and then can’t remember she’s done it, and that, moreover, the footsteps she hears over the ceiling at night and the inexplicable dimming of the gas lamps are all in her mind. Jack Manningham is two kinds of villain: a sadistic domestic tyrant of the Victorian variety as well as a psychopath who killed the previous owner of their house to rob her of some priceless rubies that he was never able to unearth. The murder remained unsolved, and now, fifteen years later, he’s returned with a bride whose fortune he uses to buy up the property so he can continue his search. Driving her into an asylum is his way of getting rid of her. But Bella Manningham is the play’s protagonist, though she’s able to triumph over her husband only with the unlooked-for help of Inspector Rough, a Scotland Yard detective who was a novice on the original investigation and who recognizes Manningham (though he’s changed his name) when he passes him in the street after he and Bella have moved into the murder house.

Most of the plot is handed to the audience before intermission, and whatever is left out is pretty simple to deduce. The suspense comes from Rough’s need to find sufficient evidence to convict Manningham before he can have poor Bella committed. The author, Patrick Hamilton – who also wrote the play Rope, a fictionalized version of the Leopold and Loeb case, which Hitchcock filmed in 1948, as well as such novels as Hangover Square and The Slaves of Solitude – has assembled the play skillfully. It’s somewhat overwritten and repetitive, but highly playable, so the pallid Barrington Stage mounting, directed by Louisa Proske, doesn’t have much of an excuse. Proske hasn’t shaped the scenes, and Kim Stauffer and Mark H. Dold’s performances as the Manninghams are a series of wasted opportunities. Dold summons up so little charm and sexual charisma that you can’t understand how Bella could have fallen for him in the first place, and Stauffer plays her as such a dishrag that her turnaround, when first she helps Rough trap Jack and then, left alone with him in the play’s famous final scene, exacts revenge on him, comes out of nowhere. It seems to me that the only way this character can work is by evoking our pity; her suffering at the hands of a cruel obsessive needs to break our hearts. In the first act, these two actors don’t even play the given circumstances (to use an acting-class term), so that the scenes don’t build logically on one another. Jack crucifies Bella for supposedly removing a picture from one of the walls in the drawing room and hiding it behind a cabinet; then  he starts in on her again for losing a shopping list. The way Dold and especially Stauffer play these scenes, the second is a virtual carbon copy of the first; it’s as if the characters had forgotten they’d just gone through the same rigmarole a few minutes earlier.

In the scene-stealing role of the inspector, Kevin O’Rourke gets his laughs, though he tends to do the same things over and over. I couldn’t figure out what Peggy Pharr Wilson was playing as the housekeeper, Elizabeth; she seems so clueless about the anguish Manningham is putting his wife through that when it turns out that Rough conspired with her to gain entrĂ©e to the home during one of Jack’s absences so that he could help out her mistress, you think that maybe you missed something. Only Ali Rose Dachis, as the slutty maid who dreams of sleeping with her employer, always seems sure of what she’s up to on stage. The set and costumes were designed, efficiently but without much flash, by Kate Noll and Beth Goldenberg respectively; Scott Pinkney’s lighting has some panache.

Joseph Cotten and Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight (1944).

Both movie versions of Gaslight expand on the play; Cukor’s, with a screenplay by Walter Reisch and two playwrights, John Van Druten and John L. Balderston, improves on it considerably. Bergman’s heroine, Paula Alquist, is the niece of a famous murdered opera singer who inherits her London house; her husband, Gregory Anton, crosses paths with her when he works as an accompanist for Paula’s voice teacher in Italy. Charles Boyer plays the scheming Anton, Joseph Cotten is the detective, Angela Lansbury is the maid, Nancy, and – in a role invented for the film – Dame May Whitty is the nosy, chattering neighbor. It’s impeccably cast and acted, and sumptuously designed (Cedric Gibbons) and lit (Joseph Ruttenberg) – a deluxe studio-era entertainment. The English version that preceded it is watchable but seems both flat and obvious by comparison.

In a capsule review in 5001 Nights at the Movies, Pauline Kael writes of Ingrid Bergman, “Though at times you may suspect that she is feeling rather than acting, her hysteria in the musicale sequence is a good demonstration of how hard it sometimes is to tell the difference.” She’s alluding here to a grandiose set piece in which Anton escorts Paula, whom he has so cowed and suppressed that she’s become a recluse, to a dinner party hosted by one of her late aunt’s friends at which a famous pianist is performing; then he unravels her by accusing her of stealing his watch and finding it in her handbag (where, of course, he’s placed it himself). In the same role, Diana Wynyard, playing opposite hammy Anton Walbrook, is pure technique; Bergman, by contrast, has no visible technique at all, which is the reason Kael argues that it’s impossible to tell if what she’s doing isn’t just conveying a level of emotion so pure and so potent that it doesn’t come across as mere melodramatic affectation. It was that purity of feeling, along with her famous fresh-country-air quality, that distinguished Bergman from other (native-born) Hollywood actresses and made audiences go wild for her in Gaslight as well as Casablanca (opposite Bogart) and Notorious (opposite Cary Grant). She couldn’t keep it up; in her later pictures she’s often tiresomely high-minded. But in this trio of movies, in her prime, she’s truly wonderful.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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