One of the big surprises of the 1997-98 Broadway season was the hit revival of Frederick Knott's 1966 suspense drama Wait Until Dark. Thrillers have long been out of fashion on Broadway. However, Wait Until Dark, which opened to largely negative reviews, managed to do more than respectable business during its three-month limited engagement--most weeks it grossed over $300,000. Among straight plays, only the runaway hit Art managed to take in more money each week. (As we went to press, the producers called off a planned extension through summer's end.) The show's appeal is partly due to high-voltage stars Quentin Tarantino and Marisa Tomei, but there's another factor as well.
Audiences are genuinely hungry for the pleasures found in thrillers--sustained dramatic tensions, exciting plot twists, shock moments that send screams rippling through the house. The screams in Wait Until Dark come from the audience's identification with heroine Susy Hendrix, a young blind woman caught in a sadistic game of cat and mouse with a trio of drug smugglers. Susy's husband, Sam, has unwittingly brought home a doll stuffed with heroin. The smugglers, led by the psychopathic Harry Roat, are desperate to retrieve the object; they get rid of Sam, a photographer, by sending him on a phony assignment to Connecticut. When Susy is left alone, the trio appears, engaging her in an elaborate con game involving a murder investigation, while searching her apartment. Susy gets wise and tries to escape; the play climaxes in a life-or-death struggle between her and Roat in the darkened apartment.
A stylish production can often mean the difference between a thriller that works and one that doesn't--the sleeker the surface, the more likely the audience will get drawn into the action. Fortunately, Wait Until Dark has style to spare. Nowhere is this more evident than in Brian MacDevitt's lighting design, which gives the production a coolly sinister undertone and plays more than a few tricks on the audience--Harry Roat isn't the only deceiver in the house. Interestingly, some of MacDevitt's best effects are achieved with practically no light at all.
The first thing the audience sees onstage is a rear exterior view of an East Village tenement, a thoroughly forbidding structure designed by Michael McGarty. MacDevitt says director Leonard Foglia wanted the setting to suggest a tomb, a concept which helps to build subliminal audience fears for Susy's safety. Then the exterior rises and, in the dark, the main interior set rolls on--it's an apartment, with a stairway leading to the front door. A large window reveals the street outside. A rear bedroom is partly visible and a modest darkroom is set up at stage right. The color palette is extremely muted, with white walls, and black-and-silver furniture. This look is (with one exception) more than matched by MacDevitt's lighting; Wait Until Dark may be the most black-and-white show in town.
Virtually everything in Foglia's direction is conceived to give Wait Until Dark the sustained tension and flow of a film (both of the play's intermissions have been eliminated, so what was a three-act show now plays for an uninterrupted 100 minutes). Similarly, MacDevitt's lighting design works cinematically. Wait Until Dark has a detailed plot, and lighting draws the audience's attention to many important points, to keep everyone abreast of the skullduggery. "There's a light plotted for an area every 5' on the stage, to have the necessary control and coverage," says the LD. "There's a door special and a right-side-of-the-door special and a file cabinet special. I don't think there's a page of the script without a cue on it." Furthermore, many cues were designed to isolate plot details and key moments in a heightened way. "When Susy first takes the bait from Roat [who feeds her a story about looking for his wife], we just pull down to the two of them--it's a very extreme cue for a naturalistic play."
Even more extreme was a series of effects that MacDevitt devised with sound designer Darron L. West. Taking their cue from Sam Hendrix's vocation, they created a series of flashes--like the popping of a bulb--that explode between scenes and at certain key moments. The flash is accompanied by the clicking sounds of a camera, giving the audience a jolt each time. "We used photography as a motif," says MacDevitt. "It's what Sam does for a living and also it evokes the idea of crime scene photos, or the photos of Weegee," the famed tabloid photographer.
The effect is achieved with a bank of strobe lights. For example, in the first scene, a corpse is discovered and the three criminals discuss the body's disposal and how they'll split the money, once they find the drugs. As the scene ends, "we put in the strobes," says MacDevitt, "and Darron has the sounds of a self-winding camera, going click-click-click. In your mind, it could be the sound of the police in the back alley, taking photos of the dead girl. Then the lights come up on the apartment, with the light on the safe [a key plot point] and Sam working at the developer. It's like a cut in a movie." In addition, a number of units on the balcony rail have a double red gel; they pop "maybe for a second," creating a red afterimage that gives the effect an extra kick.
"So much of this play is about how much you can mess with people's pupils," says MacDevitt. "How long can you sustain black, and how does the human eye react to no light?" In fact, the designer sustains an onstage blackout for a daringly long time during the play's climax, when Susy kills all the fuses in the apartment, to create a level playing field in her fight with Roat. In this scene, all the lights in the theatre are turned off, with the exception of the fire exit signs. "The play of light is based on Susy's point of view," says the designer. "This is the world she lives in, so the blacker it gets, the more you can understand what her life is. She gets the upper hand with Roat by controlling the light."
Even in a comfortable Broadway house, it's unsettling to sit in the dark for the length of a scene. "It should make you nervous," says MacDevitt. "It's like Space Mountain at Disneyland--if it were exposed to light, it would be a mediocre roller coaster. It wouldn't be nearly as fun if you could perceive all the turns. But in the dark, it's much more exciting, because you don't know where the next turn is." Not that it's an easy matter to achieve stark blackness onstage. At one point, during a run-through, the designer says the effect was spoiled by a hint of light which turned out to be a small piece of glow tape placed on the set; "your eye will see the tiniest piece of light," he says.
The play's big moment takes place in this scene, when Roat opens a refrigerator door, causing light to spill across the stage. "We spent a lot of time getting that light from the fridge exactly right," MacDevitt says. This leads to the play's violent climax, when Roat leaps out at Susy and they struggle to the death. MacDevitt heightened the effect of the sequence with a strobe light, which acts as a kind of film editor, reducing the sequence to a series of quick visual impressions, and, interestingly, heightens the impression of violence. "That's what I love about lighting," says the LD; "if you show little glimpses of something, then the audience fills in the rest. It's like Hitchcock; you don't see anyone stabbed in the shower scene of Psycho--but you think you have. What's brilliant is the way he edits it."
Lighting equipment for Wait Until Dark, which includes ETC Source Fours High End Systems Dataflash(R) AF1000s, Prolight 120s, and Diversitronics strobes, was supplied by Four Star Lighting. The show is controlled by an ETC Obsession 600 ("Don't leave home without it," says MacDevitt). John-Paul Szczepanski, who has worked with the LD on many shows, was the "brilliant" associate designer on this project. For his part, MacDevitt says Wait Until Dark was enjoyable for its sheer technical challenges. "I loved the puzzle aspect of it," he says. Not to mention those screaming audiences.