The audience is in on the con from the start in “Wait Until Dark,” a 1960s thriller that, while showing its age, still has the ability to deliver an exciting climactic punch to a receptive audience.
Frederick Knott’s narrative is straightforward: The newlywed Susie Hendrix is confronted in her basement apartment by three strangers. One says he is an old friend of her husband’s, another arrives in the guise of a police sergeant and a third comes in twice, as Harry Roat Sr. and Jr.
Because they share their intentions in the opening scene at the Kavinoky Theatre we know these guys are really crooks. They want access to the apartment to find a doll that a drug smuggler tricked Susie’s husband into bringing into the country from Canada. The doll is packed with heroin.
Their mission is complicated because Susie doesn’t have the doll and she doesn’t know where it is.
Also, Susie is blind.
At first, the intruders (who have lured Susie’s husband away on pretext) see Susie’s disability as a gift that makes their job easier. As the action goes on, however, it becomes clear that Susie is not nearly as helpless as anyone thinks.
Kathleen Macari as Susie steps into her first professional role with confidence and skill.
It is the bad guys, however, who make this show. Adriano Gatto is so sympathetic as the crook that pretends to be a family friend that he almost has the audience believing he is trustworthy “Mike.”
Stan Klimecko as the phony Sgt. Carlino grabs his throwback part with hardboiled gusto.
Movie lovers may recall the dark menace Alan Arkin brought to the role of the ringleader “Mr. Roat,” in the classic film with Audrey Hepburn, a performance it would be hard to duplicate. For the Kavinoky, Patrick Moltane takes Roat in a different direction, playing him with more swagger and bravado, using threats as a means to an end instead of inflicting terror for the pure enjoyment of it.
Speaking of pure enjoyment, thank heaven for Renee Landrigan as Gloria, the bratty 9-year-old who lives upstairs. She injects energy into the set every time she steps onto it, and provides almost all of what little humor Knott bothered to include. In a few short scenes, Landrigan reveals the heart and soul of the child who starts out as Susie’s enemy but rises admirably to the occasion when given something important to do.
The show also benefits from excellent production qualities. The set by David King is a cramped and dingy basement apartment which director Brian Cavanagh and stage manager Norm Sham move the performers around with a seemingly effortless choreography.
Times have changed a lot since “Wait Until Dark” first opened in 1966, and the dialogue at times is as creaky as the dial-telephone technology that helps Susie piece the mystery together.
There is a place in local theater for drama that only wants to entertain, without being provocative, political or confessional, and to remember a time when refrigerators needed to be defrosted and people could carry things for strangers onto airplanes.
But, looking through the program, one wonders if perhaps this could be redone as a campy comedy, like Patrick Barlow’s “The 39 Steps.” Barlow reworked Hitchcock’s spy film to delirious effect, proven by a years-long run on London’s West End.
With Barlow’s show part of the Kavinoky’s 2016-2017 season, budding playwrights have a great chance to see how it could be done.
“Wait Until Dark”
3 stars (out of four)
Frederick Knott’s thriller about a blind woman trapped in a battle of wits and knives with three thugs looking for a cache of heroin. At the Kavinoky Theatre, at D’Youville College, 320 Porter Ave. through May 22. Tickets are $38-$42. Info: 829-7668 or www.kavinokytheatre.com