At Long Last, a New Stage Thriller
by Richard Weill
[Mr. Weill is the author of Framed, a new stage thriller premiering May 7 at the Elite Theatre in Oxnard. directed by Judy Blake.]
The current health of the stage thriller quite resembles a scene common to several of the genre’s most famous plays. Before our very eyes, the thriller is shot, stabbed, strangled, and officially pronounced dead by persons of unimpeachable credibility. The thriller audience is left shaken and horrified as the curtain rings down. But as the thriller faithful well know, all is not always as it appears. What was once pronounced dead in Act I could still reappear in Act II, as full of life as ever. Couldn’t it?
Shortly before his death in 2001, Sleuth author Anthony Shaffer lamented that he was “just in time to drink about the last of the Sleuth vintage wine … I don’t think there’s that much of it left.” Sadly, too often he’s been proven correct. Although plays like Sleuth, Deathtrap, Dial ‘M’ for Murder, Wait Until Dark, Angel Street, Ten Little Indians, Witness for the Prosecution continue to attract large audiences across the country and around the world, new successful stage thrillers are few and far between.
Why is that? The longest-running play or musical in theater history is a thriller (Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, running continuously in London’s West End since 1952). The longest-running play in Broadway or off-Broadway history is also a thriller (Warren Manzi’s Perfect Crime, still running off-Broadway since 1987). Why is a genre that remains so popular now so rare? Indeed, Shaffer believed that “you can astound more in the playhouse than in the movie house.” In movies, “you can do everything,” so “the audience tends to believe less and less, and you will increasingly find that you can actually achieve less and less.” That isn’t true with a stage play. Shaffer also believed “that under the guise of the thriller form you can deliver a message without seeming to do so, without boring people.”
After all, who doesn’t enjoy sitting in a theater, engrossed in a story, when as intermission approaches – BAM! – something happens to change the meaning of everything you’ve seen since the curtain rose? Not with special effects or trick photography. Only with good storytelling: a handful of characters – listed for you in a theater program, no less – often on a single set. No room for frills, but just enough room for surprises.
And then, after you’ve spent the intermission debating who saw the Act I twist coming – WHAM! – Act II brings another twist that shifts the meaning of everything once again. Who doesn’t enjoy such a roller-coaster ride – one hopefully finishing with an ironic ending that is both astonishing and inevitable? Very few, I suspect.
The simple answer to why more stage thrillers aren’t written is that they’re damn hard to write! Deathtrap author Ira Levin called the stage thriller “that trickiest and most demanding of genres.” Particularly in the era of movies and television, said Levin, a thriller play “has to have something special, something that will work on stage.” John Pielmeier, whose 1999 play Voices in the Dark won the Edgar Allan Poe Award as Best Mystery Play, likewise considers the thriller “absolutely the most challenging form to write for the theatre.”
To be sure, no other genre places as high a premium on originality. As Levin wrote in Deathtrap itself, “every possible variation seems to have been played”; the author is tested to “conjure up a few new ones.”
But not just any new twist will do; each twist also must be fair. Producer Lawrence Langner phrased it this way: “It is permissible to deceive the audience under conditions where the characters in the play are also deceived in the same way, so that the situation is unraveled for all of us together. However, it usually spells disaster if the characters on stage know the real situation or truth, but the author deliberately sets out to deceive us.”
Then again, a thriller cannot only be about shocks and twists. Agatha Christie, author of such classic stage thrillers as Witness for the Prosecution, Ten Little Indians, and The Mousetrap, warned: “It is a limitation to have to rely entirely on your thrills or surprises.” Rather, “the more firmly you place your plot in everyday surroundings, and have characters with a life of their own, the more effective your drama will be.”
Theater critic Jack Kroll once called it all “the inexorable, interlocking inevitability of the ultimate thriller.” Are you beginning to see the difficulty?
My play Framed originated with an idea I first had in 1992. I didn’t think of the second twist until 2007, when I started finally to map out the details of the play. In fact, my map was so detailed that I wrote the first draft over a single weekend – everything except the ending, which didn’t occur to me until weeks later. After four drafts, I submitted it to a competition. It didn’t win. Several major rewrites followed. After eight drafts, the play was given a reading before an audience at the William Esper Studio in Manhattan in 2013. That led to drafts nine and ten. See what I mean?
Tom Eubanks, artistic director of the Elite Theatre in Oxnard, contacted me in 2014 after reading my play. He said he was interested in producing it, but couldn’t fit it into the 2015 season. He asked if I would wait another year. I agreed. A year later, he called again. Judy Blake signed on to direct. Framed was about to become a reality.
Framed is about two lawyers defending a rich young woman charged with murder. A virtual mountain of forensic evidence proves her guilt: blood evidence, fiber evidence, gunshot residue, cellphone records, and ultimately ballistic evidence. The older of the two experienced lawyers, refusing to gamble with the life of his client, declares the case unwinnable. He wants to make a plea deal with the prosecutor. But his younger, slicker, and more famous colleague – who’s also an audacious media hound – will entertain no thoughts of defeat. Great legal careers require stunning victories. If a mountain of evidence exists, it can only mean that a mountain of evidence was deliberately planted to incriminate the rich young defendant. In short, she must have been framed! Actually, the play’s title has a double meaning. In an early scene, we learn that the celebrity half of the legal team decorates his office, his waiting room, even his men’s room with framed articles and photographs marking the highlights of his career. So “framed” not only is his defense strategy; it also symbolizes that, unlike his less flamboyant, more risk-averse cocounsel, this lawyer is driven by his ego. Has his judgment been clouded by the image of invincibility he’s long created for himself?
That’s about all I’m at liberty to say. With a thriller, you must hook your audience using as little bait as possible. Spoil the surprises, spoil the play.
Hopefully, what I’ve written here is enough to make you bite. If it is, come to the South Stage of the Elite Theatre in Oxnard on May 7-8, 14-15, or 21-22 to find out the whole story. Maybe the late Anthony Shaffer was wrong after all. Maybe just enough of the “Sleuth vintage wine” is still in the bottle.
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