November 12, 2008

Winning and Losing at "Mindgame"

A look at the movie box office ratings on any given weekend will tell you that people like to have the bejesus scared out of them. Not me. Real life supplies all the pulse-quickening I need. I avoid horror movies. I had to brace myself to get through the third and sixth scariest volumes of the “Harry Potter” series. So I didn’t know if I should see Mindgame, the new “thriller” that opened at the Soho Playhouse on Sunday night. But curiosity got the best of me. I wanted to see what about it had convinced the eccentric filmmaker Ken Russell to make his debut, at 81 no less, as a theater director.

The answer is a show that is just as quirky as Russell, whose movies include “Women in Love” and “The Who’s Tommy”, has always been. Mindgame is one of those whodunit puzzles in the tradition of Sleuth, Deathtrap and Mousetrap, the Agatha Christie play that has been running in London since 1952. This one is set in a British mental hospital and the action centers around the visit of a crime writer who wants to do a book on the cannibalistic serial killer who is the asylum’s most infamous patient. Needless to say, nothing is as it seems. And yet, I was hardly scared at all.

That was fine for me. But less so for the play. Or for people who are serious about their thrillers. Or for critics who are very serious about their theater. And it’s hard to argue with them. Mindgame is a doofus of a thriller. It’s the kind of play your meathead brother-in-law who doesn’t like going to plays might enjoy. Still, I have to confess I kind of enjoyed it too. Not because it’s good but because it’s so goofy and the actors are such good sports about the whole thing that I couldn’t help myself (click here to see some excerpts from the show).

Keith Carradine plays the mysteriously menacing doctor running the place, Kathleen McNenny is his bizarre nurse and
Lee Godart, the visiting writer, (click here to listen to a Playbill interview with the cast members and their director). They all affect British accents and act in that self-consciously sinister and archly campy way that has entertained generations of B-movies fans. The overly intricate script by Anthony Horowitz, an old hand at TV and movie thrillers, doesn’t simply telegraph the plot twists, it virtually IMs them. And yet the show does offer some surprises. Beowulf Boritt’s set may look cheesy but you should watch it very closely.

The producers are hoping that once the main trick is revealed at the play’s end, it will make people want to come back so that they can see exactly how all the pieces fit together. In all honesty, it seems unlikely that many people will opt to see the show twice.
The couple sitting next to my buddy Bill and me left at intermission. As did my fellow blogger Mondschein. But you shouldn’t be ashamed, or afraid, to see it once.

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