Hang on for the second act of this Oh Dragon Theatre thriller – then hang on!
Reviewed by Shanon Weaver, Fri., Sept. 11, 2015
Oh Dragon Theatre Company has a hell of a poker face. Director Lacey Cannon Gonzales knows that with high risk comes the potential for great reward, and with Veronica's Room, she dares the audience to call her bluff with a rather shaky first act, but then goes all-in for a second act that leaves patrons collecting their jaws from the floor of the Trinity Street Theatre.
Producing a show of this nature is a huge gambit, and the core material by Rosemary's Baby and Deathtrap scribe Ira Levin offers no quarter. The script is at times plodding and overly expository, at others rushed and lacking nuance. Set in 1973 – maybe – the first act finds the Mackeys (an old Irish couple) and Susan and Larry (a young American couple) hashing out a seemingly well-meaning plan to bring some comfort to Cissie, the elderly, dementia-addled (and unseen) daughter of the Mackeys' former employer. As it turns out, Susan (played capably by Jessica Riley) is the spitting image of Veronica, Cissie's sister, as she looked back in the Thirties. Cissie has long believed that Veronica harbored ill will against her, and the Mackeys simply want Susan to portray Veronica and tell Cissie that everything is fine. This basic concept dominates the first half of the play, which feels long at only 40 minutes. The four actors spend most of that time meandering around a set (designed by Julie Savage) that feels unfinished, with nearly a third of the backdrop neglected and an ill-placed lamp frequently wreaking havoc on sight lines in the otherwise well-crafted titular room. The performances range from overly indicative to wholly unengaging, the dialect work by Kim Rubin and Heath Thompson as the Mackeys is woefully inconsistent (at times sporting an over-the-top caricature of the Dublin vocal pattern), and even the choice of intermission placement seems a misfire, about a page and a half early.
Then the second act begins.
Oh Dragon, it seems, has been toying with us. It's not just that something will be revealed in the second act – any conscious patron has caught on to that by this point. It's that everything, and everyone, is different now. Nothing is what it seems. Nobody is who they seem. From the reality of the world of the play to the agency and energy put forth by the actors, things take a delightfully thrilling turn immediately upon lights up. It's frustrating and difficult to respect the macabre secrets and disturbing surprises that the production has in store and still adequately write about it, but suffice it to say the missed opportunities for brilliance in the first act may have deliberately set our expectations low. Standouts Rubin and Thompson now exhibit a blistering focus in their characters, as does Chance McKee as Larry. Riley doesn't quite sell the intensity of the gaslighting taking place, but it's a near miss and easily overlooked. All in all, we can't help leaning in as these actors suddenly own their own dramatic action and forward motion, propelling us toward the chilling climax. This is a thriller after all, and a deft one at that.
Why Cannon Gonzales would choose a play that she (perhaps wisely) doesn't seem to trust enough to work on its own accord is a mystery, but her risky machinations ultimately work; the production's reverse bait-and-switch pays off handsomely in the end, and its exquisite double-twist ending leaves the audience thoroughly satisfied, a wry grin pasted to its lips that comes only with a bit of highly skilled and thoroughly enjoyable mind-fuckery.
Veronica's RoomTrinity Street Black Box Theatre, 901 Trinity
Through Sept. 12
Running time: 1 hr., 35 min.