Image: Bruce Bennett

Veronica’s Room
Thru Nov. 3
Tickets start at $19
Stages Theatre
3201 Allen Parkway
713-527-0123
stagestheatre.com 

Gazing about the remote manse on the outskirts of Boston, a young woman concludes that the old house is dusty but not spooky, not unlike the elderly couple that has lured her to the upper-floor chamber otherwise known as Veronica’s Room. Needless to say, she’s in for a surprise, as are theatergoers who’ve been lured to Stages by the expectation of an Agatha Christie–level evening of horror otherwise known as Veronica’s Room. The universe of Ira Levin’s play is far more cynical, perverse, and disturbing than one would expect from a 1973 thriller, or for that matter, any play from 1973 (so much so that you may well wish, as one character puts it, that you’d died in 1972.)

Levin, as everyone knows, was the writer of Deathtrap, still to this day the longest running thriller in Broadway history. That Veronica’s Room, by contrast, spent just two months on the Great White Way is proof that scaring an audience is not the same as sickening them, similar though the two might seem to cunning playwrights. Watching Stages’ too-good-by-half mounting of Veronica’s Room, it’s clear that Levin understood that distinction, at least during Veronica’s first act. Right from the top, he gives us a backstory pregnant with suspense: Susan Kerner (Teresa Zimmermann) a young sociology major at B.U., is having dinner at a restaurant with her new boyfriend (Dwight Clark) when the two are approached by a pair of caretakers from an estate (James Belcher and Sally Edmundson). The strange old duo professes to be captivated by Susan’s resemblance to their employers’ daughter. That would be Veronica, who—naturally—died young.

Image: Bruce Bennett

The conventions of thriller-reviewing prevent us from revealing much more about Veronica’s Room, which in a way is fortunate, as much of what happens during the ensuing 90 minutes is inexplicable. We can tell you that Levin’s play, for a time at least, creates some good old-fashioned nail-biting suspense, thanks mostly to a master class in acting delivered by the senior members of the Stages cast. Both Belcher and Edmundson are keenly aware of their plot function as cyphers whose motivations the audience must continually question. Hence, Belcher’s abrupt, unsettling shifts in demeanor, and Edmundson’s seemingly effortless slaloming between matronly and menacing, the latter of which is quite simply the stuff of nightmares.

Less effective is Zimmermann’s Susan, whose wholehearted, immediate embrace of the caretakers’ bizarre requests strains credulity, keeping the audience at a distance.  (Even in the halcyon ’70s, weren’t people taught to beware the advances of strangers?) Clark too seems a bit at sea, at least early on, unsure of how to react to the proceedings or even where to stand. These are not insignificant missteps, particularly as the play’s most fascinating element is its meditation on the seductive power of role-playing and the diabolical intentions that lie behind many a good performance.  In the case of Veronica’s Room, such intentions include everything from insanity to incest and necrophilia, topics that, while not unheard of in the theater, seem ill-chosen for a play that is schematic in both construction and intent. In the theater, subject matter and tone must be evenly matched if a play has any chance of coming to life. Absent that, all you get is necrophilia.  

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