Every play elicits its own response. I can remember evenings in the theater that made me laugh helplessly, that left me in tears or in rage, that troubled me deeply or made me reflective.
But Rupert Holmes' "Solitary Confinement" is the first I can think of that made me think, "Gosh, I'd hate to be the stage manager."
The stage manager, you see, is responsible for making sure that all the technical cues go off precisely. In a play that has doors and windows that close with steely technological efficiency, a desk full of snapping and shredding contraptions, portholes that emit poisonous smoke and a huge nine-part video screen on which much of the drama takes place, the stage manager, though never seen, is a role that requires virtuoso talents.
As if often the case, the complexity of the stage machinery is in inverse proportion to the subtlety of the human drama. When the playwright is this keen to treat the stage as a huge toy, he's seldom interested in deep character exploration.
The character in this case is a reclusive billionaire who has devised all the contraptions in the tower in which he lives to ward off intruders and to foil even the handful of people he trusts, lest they betray that trust.
The play never really tells us much about him. It is a pretext for the fun and games the set and the video screen allow. Let me say at once that I am not one of those Puritans who only tolerates plays on bare stages. I love nifty stagecraft. I love, for example, the Met's production of "Tales of Hoffmann," and I even have a sneaking fondness for some of Franco Zeffirelli's Met super-spectacles. But even these work best when the music-making is sufficiently grand.
As for "Solitary Confinement," I cannot imagine an actor handling the key role with more skill and flair than Stacy Keach. It has been a long time since Keach worked in the theater, but he still has a theater actor's intensity and bravura. He is a little stockier than he used to be but, with his new figure and his ingratiating voice, he reminded me a little of Robert Preston, and he has that kind of charm, which is essential to making so artificial an evening work.
He is supported by an especially able group of character actors all deftly directed by Marshall W. Mason. The set has a cool high-tech gloss and does all its tricks nimbly.
Rupert Holmes' "Solitary Confinement," which opened at the Nederlander Theater last night, is not so much a whodunit as a whatwasit. There are mysteries here. Just for starters, why should Stacy Keach - an actor obviously of more skill than judgment - choose this for his return to Broadway?
The play itself is a high-tech variation on the theme of the locked-room mystery, brought to some perfection many years ago by the likes of novelist John Dickson Carr. Now Holmes is an experienced hand at criminology Broadway style - he wrote the musical "Edwin Drood" and the thriller "Accomplice" - and he has ingeniously devised a room not so much locked as hermetically sealed.
Richard Jannings, the hero - the blustering and sinisterly flamboyant Keach - is an eccentric, unloved zillionaire, living in the shade of Howard Hughes and sterilized solitude at the top of an office tower he owns in Albuquerque, N.M. His contact with the outside world is via an enormous video-screen, through which he can see and address his minions, but they can only hear him.
An ideal set-up for a recluse - but perhaps a little dangerous for somone with enemies. And Jannings has enemies to spare - even Will Rogers would have found something to dislike in him, and to his employees he makes Genghis Khan seem like Joan of Arc in a good mood. Moreover, someone who lives by technology, can die by technology.
That is the plot of "Solitary Confinement." Here's the mechanism. An intruder is introduced into the Jannings microcosm. Jannings promptly presses the right button to secure all entrances and exits. Except one. He forgets (likely? permit Holmes his Watsonian errors) the dumb waiter.
Could an intruder (let alone a waiter) get carried up on a dumb waiter? Doubtful. Forgive. The game's afoot.
The genre of stage thriller - more respected in Britain's West End than on Broadway - has changed over the years. The suspense, and even sense of character and atmosphere, once purveyed by the likes of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, has been replaced by the sheer inventiveness of beguiling surprise.
It was Tony Shaffer's corkscrew brilliance with "Sleuth" which started this almost new form, soon followed by such lesser examples as "Deathtrap" and "Corpse." And now "Solitary Confinement," which is not only worse-written than those predecessors, but rather less gripping, if only because most of the twists are peripheral to the story - such as when the intruder first removes his mask - rather than essential.
Many of the details - say, the Houdini-style escape - appear to be well-researched, and Holmes is adroit at introducing some TV game-show elements, which certainly add a touch of comic originality to the proceedings.
The directors, Kenneth Frankel who staged the original tryout and Marshall W. Mason who took over for Broadway, have done a smooth enough job, while William Barclay's study/library looks appropriately opulent without, like the play itself, having quite the style that might have made it impudently witty.
As for the performances, these are very entertainingly dominated by Stacy Keach's tour de force, who acts with relish and panache as if he were doing "The Corsican Brothers" or some other old melodrama. Indeed nothing becomes Keach so well as his curtain calls, and it must be admitted that every member of the cast, although naturally given smaller roles and seen for the most part only on video, are, in their own way, every bit as good Keach himself.
Fans of Keach - at least those of them not demanding that this once exceptional actor exert his histrionic options - will find a satisfying lot of Keach to be fans of. As for the play, its mechanism is a bit creaky and its concept a little contrived, but it may serve a very modest turn as a thriller with more cute surprises than honest thrills.
In "Solitary Confinement," Stacy Keach plays a reclusive and tyrannical billionaire. Isolated in his castle-like office tower, he runs his life and controls the lives of others while sitting at a high-tech computer console. The supporting characters, any one of whom might have murderous intentions against the billionaire, are seen on a large closed-circuit television screen. Despite the elaborate electronic hardware, this is a tepid attempt at a mystery, offering neither chills nor thrills, and substituting contrived special effects for dramatic invention.
The Rupert Holmes play opened last night at the Nederlander Theater on Broadway after playing at the Pasadena Playhouse in California and at the Kennedy Center in Washington. "Solitary Confinement" pushes theater several steps closer to television. A game-show conclusion puts the final seal on the work's limited aspirations. In the theater, the play wastes the audience's time and Mr. Keach's talent. There is no fast-forward button to get us through the slow parts.
With the help of Charles Dickens, Mr. Holmes created the musical "The Mystery of Edwin Drood." Then, on his own, he came up with "Accomplice," a Broadway whodunit in which the author appeared as a character onstage, thereby subjecting himself to double jeopardy. Mr. Holmes does not perform in "Solitary Confinement," but his presence is ubiquitous as he manipulates and mangles his plot, stuffing it with digressions, including an extraneous diatribe against the Dutch. Although there are topical wisecracks as well as quotations from Oscar Wilde and other writers, the dialogue is humorless. Despite the many references to Houdini and his famous escape from a locked trunk, the show is exceedingly slight of hand in the magic department.
The weight of the evening falls on Mr. Keach; for all of his effort, he is unable to lighten the burden. The author has constructed the role from spare dramatic parts, from Howard Hughes to HAL the computer in "2001: A Space Odyssey." With histrionic fortitude, the actor pretends he has something with which to work, trying to knead his villain into a rounded character.
In his varied performance, he demonstrates aspects of his acting prowess, pretending to be both suave and reptilian while dueling and rushing around the scenery. Mr. Keach re cycles elements from his past, including his hard-boiled Mike Hammer and his "Richard III," reprising the limp he used in the Washington production. In one case, he offers a homage to Dustin Hoffman in "Tootsie." Mr. Keach is a fine classical actor, equally adept at tragedy and farce. It is good to see him back on the New York stage. (His last role was in "Deathtrap," which is a more viable melodrama.) But one regrets his choice of vehicle in which to return.
Necessarily, a critic has to be circumspect about how much of the mystery to reveal, although in this case the central gimmick is telegraphed early in the show. One clue might serve: contradicting the credits in the program, the play has more producers than actors. There are two directors of record: Kenneth Frankel, who is responsible for the "original direction," and Marshall W. Mason, who is the supervisor of the Broadway production. Both directors are indebted to the set designer, William Barclay, who, after Mr. Keach and Mr. Holmes, is the most active participant in "Solitary Confinement."
Mr. Barclay has lined the stage with push-button panels, secret doors and video monitors. There is a pitch-and-putt one-hole golf course, and a dumbwaiter serves up plot devices along with flapjacks for Mr. Keach's breakfast. While waiting for the next twist, theatergoers can watch the scenery. One scans the stage for clues. Will Mr. Keach put on a suit of armor? (Yes.) Will the van Gogh sunflowers play any part in the plot? (No.) And what about the stuffed raven? The bird provokes the character to think of Lewis Carroll as well as Edgar Allan Poe. Repeatedly he poses a question from "Alice in Wonderland": why is a raven like a writing desk? This conundrum is more puzzling than anything in Mr. Holmes's play.
If crowds roaring their appreciation at a final curtain guarantee a long run, Stacy Keach may have found in "Solitary Confinement" his biggest break since he replaced John Wood in "Deathtrap" 13 years ago. Rupert Holmes' new play and Ira Levin's old one are similar in that they're both boulevard thrillers, happy to provide audiences with a few hours of suspense sprinkled with a couple of jolting surprises.
They also require a certain virtuosity, which Keach has in spades, even if the once-keen talent of this actor has grown flabby from trashy TV gigs and theatrical junk food.
Here he plays Richard Jannings, reclusive billionaire and grand acquisitor, a man with Donald Trump's modesty and Howard Hughes' mental balance and social graces, controlling his world via big-screen closed-circuit TV from a 51st-floor aerie atop his corporate headquarters in Albuquerque.
The first act is so boring, pointless and expository that it's a wonder word of mouth in the lobby doesn't kill it off early.
Act 2, a kind of cat-and-mouse game Jannings plays with a killer, is a bit livelier. It also employs a device Holmes used in "Drood," namely, pandering to the audience, in this case through a quiz a would-be killer must pass to save his skin.
Keach delights in stretching out the time he takes to work out the answers, in a way calculated to quicken theatergoers' heartbeats.
But "Solitary Confinement" is clumsy and almost wholly lacking in style; every word has a phony ring, as does William Barclay's imposing, gimmick-ridden set. All of the characters but one take part by way of a giant video screen, a situation sure totip off the play's major surprise to at least some astute audience members, and one that makes for an oddly two-dimensional experience.
Clearly, given the B.O. response during prior runs in California and Washington, this is enough for a lot of ticketbuyers. But anyone who wants to see what can really be done creatively with live actors interacting with video should check out Blue Man Group or any night at the Kitchen, and save your money.