Playwright Ira Levin had a twisted mind. If you don't believe me, just watch Rosemary's Baby, Deathtrap, The Boys from Brazil and The Stepford Wives. If you're still not convinced, go on over to the Bickford Theatre in Morristown where Daniel LaPenta's tautly directed production of Veronica's Room stands expectations on their head and will scare the you-know-what out of you.
Because Levin's plots hinge on the unexpected, it is difficult to summarize them without spoiling the fun. Suffice it to say that the rather short 45-minute first act, entitled "Susan," sets up a seemingly benign, albeit a tad bizarre, situation wherein a young couple find themselves in an old house (actually a bedroom where every bit of furniture is shrouded in sheets), enticed there by a couple of old Irish servants. According to the two, the young woman is the spitting image of their beloved ill mistress Veronica, who had been kept in the room by her family for years until she tragically died of tuberculosis in 1935. (Above L-R: Debra Whitfield, Rosemary Glennon, Michael Manahan and Rick Delaney in Veronica’s bedroom.)
Told that Veronica's surviving sister Cissy longs for her, the girl—a Boston University sophomore named Susan Kerner—agrees to don Veronica's dress, rearrange her hair and convince the terminally ill younger sibling that she's not angry with her and loves her very much. It all sounds weird but not terribly threatening, that is, until the bedroom door is locked from the outside and, despite Susan's frantic cries and pounding, no one comes to her rescue, not even her date Larry who, although skeptical of the entire plan at the beginning, has allowed himself to be ushered downstairs to watch television and sip some Irish whiskey.
The second act, entitled "Veronica," is much longer and grimmer. What started as a lark turns into something dark and threatening. Our (and Susan's) expectations are turned around 180 degrees, so that it's sometimes hard to discern just what is really happening. Not to worry, though, Levin's deft way serving up the unexpected doesn't disappoint. But you'll have to see Veronica's Room yourself to see how this strange piece of "performance art" plays out.
Of course, one needs a talented cast to pull off this sleight of hand, and director La Penta has found four actors who fill the bill quite nicely. As Susan (called "The Girl" in the playbill), Rosemary Glennon (left) looks and sounds the part of a college girl. It helps that she is a recent grad of FDU's Theatre Arts Department. Dressed in tie-dyed bellbottoms and a green vest suitable for 1973 (when the first act takes place), she spouts suitably immature dialogue, punctuated by "Oh, wow," in a high-pitched voice and appears to be easily won over by the idea of acting a role; she played Cordelia in a high school production of King Lear. She's equally fine at playing mounting panic, which is important as the character slowly comes to realize the gravity of the situation. (Above: Rosemary Glennon as Susan has her hair styled by Debra Whitfield as Maureen)
"The Young Man" as played by Michael Manahan is appropriately skeptical as Susan's date, the lawyer Larry Eastwood, sardonic and untrusting and strangely unwilling to let her even touch him. And as the servants Maureen and John, Debra Whitfield and Rick Delaney sport thick Irish brogues, cheerful delight at having discovered Susan and a charm that inveigles Susan to go along with their plan to make Cissy happy. They're a couple of leprechauns, these two!
Everyone except Glennon assumes different roles in the second act, to even greater success. In addition to portraying their characters well, the three project a tangible air of menace, and malice. Who are these people and what are they up to? As the plot unfolds and reality—such as it is—becomes clear to the audience, one could hear a pin drop. No one coughed, no one moved, and it appeared that no one even dared to breathe at the performance I attended on Saturday night. (Above L-R: Rick Delaney and Rosemary Glennon)
Aiding and abetting the portentous plot are Jim Bazewicz for a seemingly innocuous, yet creepy, set, Roman Klima for atmospheric lighting and Andrew Elliott's spooky music. Fran Harrison's period costumes for both 1973 and 1935 are spot on, too.
Veronica's Room may not be high theater art, but it is an entertaining Gothic thriller that will upend your assumptions through a convoluted plot and characters who are anything but what they appear to be. It's a thriller in every sense of the word, and great fun to boot!
Veronica's Room will be performed through February 12 at the Bickford Theatre in the Morris Museum, 6 Normandy Heights Road, Morristown. For information and tickets, call 973.971.3706 or visit online at www.BickfordTheatre.org .