Torn Space Theater specializes in nightmares.
And its latest living fever dream, Matthew Clinton Sekellick’s disconcerting and often electrically charged adaptation of the noir film “Detour,” is effective enough to make you wake up in a cold sweat.
The play, running through Sunday as part of the Buffalo Infringement Festival, is the result of Torn Space’s inaugural competition for emerging directors. Competitors worked from a common set of instructions, which stipulated that text or dialogue had to come from “Detour,” the set should give “no sense of décor,” that the action be focused on the principal players and that it last no longer than 55 minutes.
“From out of limitation comes innovation,” Katie Mallinson, Torn Space’s audience outreach director, wrote in a program note. And so, in this case, it did.
“Detour,” the 1945 film by Martin Goldsmith based on his earlier novel of the same name, tells the hazy, minor-key story of Al Roberts (Andrew Kottler), a down-on-his luck piano player hitching his way out west to meet his girlfriend. It’s clear from the start of the film, and certainly in this dread-drenched production, that things aren’t going to go as planned. But it’s never quite clear if Roberts is telling the truth or just his particularly rosy version of it.
Along the way, Roberts gets a ride with a wealthy traveler (James Heffron), whose untimely death sets up a series of increasingly desperate and dread-filled episodes. After assuming the identity of the wealthy man, Roberts picks up the wrong woman (Becky Globus), and his dark fate is sealed.
Sekellick clearly has been reading the Torn Space handbook and paying attention to the work of its co-founder Dan Shanahan, an expert at relentlessly striking and amplifying certain emotional chords – especially disorientation, dread and despair.
Here, as Sekellick writes in his program note, the particular emotional timbre he’s after is “a pervasive sense of doom.” Whereas the film establishes that sense primarily by visual means, Sekellick’s production employs a relentless but effective sound design by Todd Lesmeister, in concert with video by Matt Biehl and Brian Milbrand, to accomplish the same.
Throughout almost the entire production, an urgent digital drone plays on the speakers. It’s not distracting as much as disconcerting, a constant and slightly heavy-handed reminder that, no, everything is not going to be just fine in the end.
Throughout the show, videos of the passing highway and other abstracted images play on three screens that double as the walls of the set, adding to the sense of being lost in a kind of living nightmare.
As Roberts, Kottler is not entirely believable, but he does exude a kind of strained optimism that seems appropriate for the character. Heffron strikes a noirish tone as Charlie Haskell and other characters that’s perfect for the production. But the best performance comes from Globus as the implacable and dangerous Vera, who is clearly a human powder keg on the verge of exploding.
When she does, it seals Roberts’ fate and whatever tiny semblance of hope that hadn’t already been obliterated by Sekellick’s production breathes its last breath.
This is not exactly uplifting summer viewing, but a very promising directorial debut indeed.
When: Through Sunday
Where: Adam Mickiewicz Dramatic Circle and Library, 612 Fillmore Ave.
Info: 812-5733, www.tornspacetheater.com