These days, in the theater, a good pyschopath is hard to find.
George Orwell once wrote a famous essay on "The Decline of the English Murder." Someone should now write an essay on "The Decline of the Theatrical Maniac."
In the age of Hannibal Lecter, the killers who used to scare theater audiences look very tame. The slick, fast, complex plots of most movie thrillers make the slow mechanics of drama look clunky. Recent Broadway revivals of old chillers underlined the point. "Night Must Fall" was merely dull. In "Wait Until Dark," the only terror was Quentin Tarantino's awful acting.
So the big question for John Pielmeier's new thriller, "Voices in the Dark," is whether it can give new life to violent death on the stage.
At first, the signs are promising. "Voices in the Dark" is set up on the strange frontier where "Frasier" meets "Deliverance." The heroine is a famous radio psychologist, played by the wonderful Judith Ivey, who ends up in a cabin in the Adirondacks surrounded by eerie half-witted locals.
Instead of the usual quivering victim, Ivey gives us a strong, tough survivor. In an arresting opening, Pielmeier introduces some hard-eged themes child abuse and media exploitation. Instead of the old conflict of good and evil, Pielmeier seems to be entering a dark territory where no one is normal.
With Christopher Ashley's crisp direction and committed performances from the cast, it looks like "Voices in the Dark" might beat the odds. But slowly and relentlessly, the old cliches return. Pielmeier dips again and again into the shallow bag of hoary theatrical tricks. The cabin is cut off by a storm. The lights go out. Figures appear at the window. The apparent interest in psychology and the media is reduced to the voice of a psycho on the phone.
And the maniac, when he finally appears, is just a familiar ragbag of pop psychology and lurid poses. Instead of insight, we get a tired replay of old fallacies about schizophrenia.
In order to be scared, we must first be surprised. Pielmeier runs out of surprises at the crucial moment. The final conflict is deftly arranged by fight director B. H. Barry. But the drama is so flat by then that the violence is too cartoonish to be really scary.
The pity is that Judith Ivey and her fellow actors can do no more at this stage than display their technical excellence and their honest commitment to the work. Opportunities for real acting have been left far behind.
And so, for all its early promise, "Voices in the Dark" merely confirms that the old-style theatrical thriller has been cruelly done to death by the onslaught of movie madmen. If it is to return from the grave, it will have to scare us, not with funny voices and butcher knives, but with the dark corners of the mind.
Neither Agnes nor God could make much sense out of "Voices in the Dark," the new thriller at the Longacre by John Pielmeier, the author of "Agnes of God."
The heroine, Lil, played with sitcom obviousness by the likable Judith Ivey, is the nation's leading radio shrink. The opening scene shows her calming down a caller troubled by paternal sex abuse - and pay attention here, for paternal abuse will turn up later on as a master explanation for all kinds of wickedness.
Then Lil gets a voice-altered call threatening her with violence.
So what does she do next? Go off alone to a remote woodsy cabin adorned with elk-heads and a Jacuzzi; it's way up near Plattsburg, and there's an isolating snow storm blowing up.
One of those WASPish friends beloved of old Broadway scripts (Peter Bartlett) helps her get settled in, makes a few cracks along the lines of "Who was your decorator, Hemingway?" and promptly goes back to New York.
Left all alone, Lil then fields a lot of phone calls. Her philandering and faraway hubby says his plane has been grounded by a bomb threat. The psycho checks in regularly. A guy named Red phones, looking for his girlfriend; it's a wrong number, but Lil, who's never laid eyes on Red, invites him over for dinner anyway. She slips into her Martha Stewart mode, slicing and dicing veggies for a stew and folding the napkins just so. This gal has got to be the dumbest dame-in-distress since Desdemona - or, at any rate, since Joan Crawford in such wide-eyed gaspers as "Sudden Fear" or "Female on the Beach."
This Joan Crawford enters Ma and Pa Kettle Land as two local morons pop by. They're called Blue and Owen (what is it with Pielmeier and color names?). Blue (a solid John Ahlin) is a big, goofy Mr. Fix-it who helps slice the veggies - very enthusiastically - and thinks he's the new Stephen King. Owen (a remarkable performance by Raphael Sbarge) is a grinning retard who gets a crush on Lil and likes to play with her underwear.
Blue and Owen have an odd, unclarified relationship rather like that of Lennie and George in "Of Mice and Men." Another visitor is local cop called Egan (Zach Grenier), a ferrety guy who has it in for shrinks.
Things get yucky - disgusting rather than scary, actually - as Lil's stew is spoiled by the addition of fingers and the Jacuzzi is rendered unusable by the presence in it of larger limbs. The thriller conventions are dutifully dragged in: The lights go out a lot; faces appear suddenly in the window; people you thought dead turn out not to be.
A good stage thriller - Ira Levin's "Deathtrap," for instance, or Anthony Shaffer's "Sleuth" or Agatha Christie's "Witness for the Prosecution" - will deploy these conventions, but only after involving us with clever characters operating in an artificial but convincingly created world.
There's not one clever or credible thing about "Voices in the Dark," from the behavior of its leading lady to the glib victim psychology that is paraded in the finale. Thrillers should not offer life lessons; they should captivate and terrify.
Psychopaths, like small children, have an endearing way of blurting out embarrassing truths that no one else dare utter. Toward the long-awaited end of ''Voices in the Dark,'' the thrill-free thriller by John Pielmeier that opened last night at the Longacre Theater, the play's resident homicidal maniac weighs in with a most astute critical judgment as he considers the gore around him: ''Oh, what a mess!'' Bless him. Someone had to say it.
By that point, ''Voices in the Dark,'' which stars a very valiant Judith Ivey as an imperiled radio talk show host, has managed to throw in elements from just about every shivery woman-in-jeopardy plot of the last six or seven decades. It has evoked, to its detriment, everything from old-fashioned telephone-centered shockers like ''Sorry, Wrong Number'' and ''Midnight Lace'' to carnage-in-the-woods movies like ''Friday the 13th.'' There has even been nervous violin music (by Robert Waldman) a la Bernard Herrmann's score for ''Psycho.''
Still to come is the sequence in which Ms. Ivey's character quaintly tries to defang her predator by summoning his alternate personality, just as those good doctors did with Joanne Woodward in ''The Three Faces of Eve.'' But this psycho isn't buying. ''You want to integrate me?'' he asks. ''Well, I'm going to disintegrate you.''
Once again, he is right on target. Integration, whether of plot ends or of humor and suspense, just isn't going to happen in this play. It's like the overcooked veal stew that is prepared onstage and which may or may not include some extra meat from the eviscerated body in the Jacuzzi. Nobody, maniacs excepted, swallows it.
Mr. Pielmeier is best known for ''Agnes of God,'' the nun-meets-shrink psychodrama that was a popular success on Broadway and later made into a movie. It was a show that mixed tabloid prurience (dead baby found in demented nun's wastebasket!) with highbrow arguments on religion versus psychology, so that audiences could have their sensationalism without feeling like vultures. In cold print, ''Agnes'' doesn't remotely hold together as either mystery or theological debate, but onstage its holes were partly concealed by the powerhouse presences of Elizabeth Ashley, Geraldine Page and Amanda Plummer.
For ''Voices,'' which is directed by Christopher Ashley, Mr. Pielmeier has come up with an even more brazen blend of gruesomeness and intellectual posturing that makes disparaging moral comment on the same lurid elements it exploits. (As in ''Agnes,'' a history of child molestation figures prominently.) The dramatist is again blessed with a first-rate actress. But even the smart and resourceful Ms. Ivey can't overcome the humiliation of having to make like Jamie Lee Curtis in her scream queen period, brandishing a butcher knife while sobbing in terror.
Ms. Ivey plays Lil, the therapy-dispensing host of the call-in radio show ''Last Resort.'' Described by her agent as ''commercial, compassionate, movingly primal,'' she has saved 79 lives on the air. Now she wants to heal her own marriage and to that end goes to an isolated cabin (designed by David Gallo and Lauren Helpern) in the Adirondacks to rendezvous with her straying husband.
It goes without saying that a blizzard starts soon after she arrives, along with thunder, lightning and a power failure. Then there's that wacko anonymous caller who keeps saying he really wants to hurt a certain unidentified woman.
The husband never shows, but an assortment of rustic creeps do: the childlike goon, Owen (Raphael Sbarge); the lecherous, uncouth handyman, Blue (John Ahlin), and the testy, disgruntled Egan (Zach Grenier), who may or may not be the police detective he claims to be. As Lil's agent, Hack (Peter Bartlett), who drops by just long enough to sprinkle that ever popular acid gay wit, notes, ''Oh God, I'm in 'Deliverance 2.' ''
Such lines suggest that ''Voices,'' like Wes Craven's far more entertaining ''Scream,'' wants to mock the formulaic hand that shapes it. But Mr. Ashley and his creditable cast never settle on a consistent and forceful style, and the evening's wit and suspense are equally limp. The banter comes from an assembly kit. (''This is important television.'' ''Talk about oxymorons.'') The scenes in which Ms. Ivey stumbles through the dark in panic suggest nothing more disturbing than that she is trying to revive the lost art of slam dancing.
Ms. Ivey goes as far as anyone could in milking some semblance of a character from her role. In the early scenes in particular, she plays amusingly with the vocal tones and rhythms of a woman who makes her living from pop psychology and talking to strangers. But no one outside a downtown camp fest can be expected to carry off moments like the one in which Lil says to someone who has just stumbled onto the evening's first corpse: ''He's not all in there. Some of him is inside the stew.''
Mr. Pielmeier sticks in some talk about the primal instincts of violence versus civilized problem-solving. And he takes time to sneer at a rube who doesn't know the difference between Stephen King and Stephen Hawking and at sleaze-show television hosts like Jerry Springer and Sally Jessy Raphael. He is on shaky ground.
With "The Blair Witch Project" giving a high-concept, low-budget jolt to film thrillers --- and scaring up more money than anyone bargained for --- it would be nice to report that "Voices in the Dark" is capable of turning the same trick for the genre onstage. Unfortunately John Pielmeier's thriller, Broadway's first in many a full moon, is conspicuously low-concept, a standard-issue psycho-stalks-vulnerable-woman vehicle dressed up with some tired chatshow psychologizing. The play has been mounted with care and expense --- David Gallo and Lauren Helpern's set is an impressive achievement --- but it's still pretty cheap goods. With far superior plays succumbing to the summer slump on Broadway, "Voices in the Dark" will not likely keep the Longacre alight for long.
Judith Ivey plays Pielmeier's damsel in distress, giving a performance worthy of her distinguished stage history in a play that's unworthy of her. She plays Lil, a successful radio therapist who receives a spooky call from a murderous-sounding man in the final moments of her last broadcast before she heads off to her husband's Adirondacks cabin for a week. The remainder of the play takes place in the cabin, rendered by Gallo and Helpern with admirable attention to realistic detail --- it has that semi-lived-in, self-consciously rural look of the city dweller's vacation home.
Ensconced in the lonesome woods, with her husband's arrival indefinitely delayed, Lil chats with a few potential suspects, including her producer Hack (Peter Bartlett), a quipping queen who makes a mild feint toward red herring-hood before heading off to Vermont; and the more sinister duo of Owen (Raphael Sbarge), a vaguely retarded young man who gets up to some unpleasant things with Lil's lingerie, and his caretaker, local handyman Blue (John Ahlin), who frets portentously while chopping vegetables and leers lasciviously at Lil. (Although Lil makes derisive cracks about Jerry Springer, "Voices in the Dark" is itself consistently and distastefully coarse-minded.)
The snow falls, the psycho calls, and soon Lil is cowering with the butcher knife as the killer plays sadistic games, Robert Waldman's Herrmannesque strings screeching ominously in the background.
The play's plotting is not of the ingenious kind that made, say, "Sleuth" and "Deathtrap" Broadway mainstays --- it's a matter of waiting around to figure out which of the assorted freaks is the murderous one. Instead of intriguing psychological twists we get twisted psychology of a banal kind, with the killer's motivation hinging on revelations about sexual abuse, all hashed out with Lil in the play's finale.
There are a few peekaboo scares (one recycled from "Wait Until Dark"), but the play's setpiece scenes --- Lil's is-he-or-isn't-he-the-killer sparring with a conveniently weird detective, and the final battle of wits and wills --- drag on tediously (a suspense-draining intermission should have been axed).
Christopher Ashley directs with competence, although one might have wished for a superior project for the Off Broadway veteran's Main Stem debut. Ivey is always convincing and plausible, even when the play isn't, and the rest of the cast ably perform their one-dimensional roles.
The ad campaign for "Voices in the Dark" emphasizes the genre's moribund nature: "How long have you been waiting for a new thriller?" runs the tag line. Who's been waiting? Thrillers have remained a viable film genre even as they've all but evaporated from the stage. It's not happenstance, of course: The intimacy of movies better serves the genre's visceral appeal, as the unfortunate "Voices in the Dark," which trades on the same shlocky shocks that are scary movies' stock in trade, only succeeds in proving.