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Tarantino 'Acting' In a Play

WAIT UNTIL DARK Directed by Leonard Foglia at the Wilbur Theater Through March 22

NO WRITER ATTRIBUTED

In a press conference last month, trendy indy film king Quentin Tarantino expressed his eagerness to "poke out the eye of the monster on Broadway." One wry onlooker commented, "I don't expect to see a one-eyed Frank Rich ['71] walking around anytime soon."

If Tarantino's tepid performance last Thursday is any indication, Mr. Rich need not fear for his eyes--although there's no guarantee he won't get beaten up in a restaurant by Quentin, who has been known to respond, er, violently to criticism.

In case you haven't heard, the wildly overrated writer-director of Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown has decided to amuse and confound the New York theater scene by accepting a part in a much-ballyhooed revival of Frederick Knott's classic 1966 thriller, Wait Until Dark. Tarantino plays Harry Roat, a ruthless drug smuggler who coerces two small-time hoods (Stephen Lang and Juan Hernandez) into helping him recover a shipment of heroin hidden in the apartment of an unwitting couple. When they discover that Suzy (Marisa Tomei), the homebound wife, is blind, the crooks wait for her husband to leave and begin staging what they think will be an easy con. Naturally, Suzy proves to be a worthier adversary than any of them imagined. She plays on the intruders' underestimation of her abilities and keeps them in the dark--literally.

It's a great concept. It's a great script. It even spawned a great screen adaptation with Audrey Hepburn and Alan Arkin. Do yourself a favor and rent the video. Don't bother forking over sixty dollars at the Wilbur Theater, where Wait is waiting out its pre-Broadway run. Director Leonard Foglia's half-hearted stage rendering has its moments, but the production as a whole hovers somewhere between mediocrity and patent ineptitude.

Tarantino is a major liability, though he's really not as bad as you might expect. That's not to say he's good. He's not even acting. He's the same old Tarantino we saw in Four Rooms, From Dusk Til Dawn, and (for the less fortunate among us) Destiny Turns on the Radio: a swaggering geek with delusions of tough-guy grandeur.

Unfortunately, the role of Harry Roat calls for an actor (I could stop the sentence right there) who can combine the unflappablecool of John Travolta with the chilly, proteanmalevolence of Richard III. Tarantino's Roatis...well, rote. He smirks. He grimaces as ifsomeone left a Royale With Cheese rottingbackstage. He "disguises" his voice using accentsso inauthentic, they make your high school dramaclub look like the Royal Shakespeare Company. Hegleefully brandishes a long, serrated knife withall the panache of a gawky video store clerk. Ifnothing else, you can tell he's having a goodtime.

His fellow actors don't appear to be gettingquite as big a kick out of it. Tarantino's verypresence on stage seems to put them--and theaudience--on edge. It isn't really Quentin'sfault--it's just that Wait Until Dark is aperiod piece, a clever, understand brew ofHitchcockian suspense and late-'60s protofeminism.It hearkens back to the good old days, when drugdealers carried knives, not guns, and when WestSide Story was still considered gritty.

Suddenly, in walks the chief avatar of thedesensitized '90s and POOF! the spell is broken.On press night, when Tarantino opened a closetdoor to reveal the body of one of his victims,some people actually laughed. And can you blamethem? I mean, this is Quentin Tarantino!They were probably expecting him to kill heron-stage and toss off a twisted one-liner beforeher body hit the floor. They were probablyexpecting him to actually shoot heroin, notjust talk about it.

When the lights go out, the situation improves.To reveal any more would give away the twistending, but suffice it to say that Tarantino, likesex after 40, is better in the dark.

Marisa Tomei makes a strong showing as theresourceful Suzy, but director Foglia has herworking at a disadvantage. He has the diminutiveactress decked out like a teenybopper, completewith jeans, day-glo top and sneakers. Apparently,he wants to emphasize her character's youthfulnaivete, but this seems like overkill. Suzy'salready blind and besieged by street thugs--doesshe also have to be the consummate ingenue?

In spite of the Keds, Tomei remains steady andreliable throughout the play--she's the glue thatholds the show together. Her timing in perfect,and her sense of pace is dead-on. Herinterpretation of blindness is convincing enough,and it's impressive how well she can find her wayaround Michael McGarty's superbly cluttered set inthe dark. But that blank stare and high-pitchedvoice (along with the Annette Funicello wardrobe)often suggest a shrill bimbette, not a savvyheroine defending her domicile against invaders.

James Whalen shines in the small part of Suzy'shusband Sam, who leaves after the second scene anddoesn't return until the very end of the play.Although they only share the stage for fiveminutes, Whalen and Tomei exhibit great chemistry.Unfortunately, the same can't be said for StephenLang's Mark Talman, the good-hearted hood whodevelops an affinity for Suzy while simultaneouslyattempting to con her. The sexual tension betweenLang and Tomei falls flat, mainly because theytalk at rather than to one other.Their exchanges are hopelessly wooden--strange,considering the ample talent and experience ofthese two fine performers.

But the lifeless dialogue between Tomei andLang accounts for only a small fraction of theshow's awkward moments: the vast major-B-3DAR

His fellow actors don't appear to be gettingquite as big a kick out of it. Tarantino's verypresence on stage seems to put them--and theaudience--on edge. It isn't really Quentin'sfault--it's just that Wait Until Dark is aperiod piece, a clever, understand brew ofHitchcockian suspense and late-'60s protofeminism.It hearkens back to the good old days, when drugdealers carried knives, not guns, and when WestSide Story was still considered gritty.

Suddenly, in walks the chief avatar of thedesensitized '90s and POOF! the spell is broken.On press night, when Tarantino opened a closetdoor to reveal the body of one of his victims,some people actually laughed. And can you blamethem? I mean, this is Quentin Tarantino!They were probably expecting him to kill heron-stage and toss off a twisted one-liner beforeher body hit the floor. They were probablyexpecting him to actually shoot heroin, notjust talk about it.

When the lights go out, the situation improves.To reveal any more would give away the twistending, but suffice it to say that Tarantino, likesex after 40, is better in the dark.

Marisa Tomei makes a strong showing as theresourceful Suzy, but director Foglia has herworking at a disadvantage. He has the diminutiveactress decked out like a teenybopper, completewith jeans, day-glo top and sneakers. Apparently,he wants to emphasize her character's youthfulnaivete, but this seems like overkill. Suzy'salready blind and besieged by street thugs--doesshe also have to be the consummate ingenue?

In spite of the Keds, Tomei remains steady andreliable throughout the play--she's the glue thatholds the show together. Her timing in perfect,and her sense of pace is dead-on. Herinterpretation of blindness is convincing enough,and it's impressive how well she can find her wayaround Michael McGarty's superbly cluttered set inthe dark. But that blank stare and high-pitchedvoice (along with the Annette Funicello wardrobe)often suggest a shrill bimbette, not a savvyheroine defending her domicile against invaders.

James Whalen shines in the small part of Suzy'shusband Sam, who leaves after the second scene anddoesn't return until the very end of the play.Although they only share the stage for fiveminutes, Whalen and Tomei exhibit great chemistry.Unfortunately, the same can't be said for StephenLang's Mark Talman, the good-hearted hood whodevelops an affinity for Suzy while simultaneouslyattempting to con her. The sexual tension betweenLang and Tomei falls flat, mainly because theytalk at rather than to one other.Their exchanges are hopelessly wooden--strange,considering the ample talent and experience ofthese two fine performers.

But the lifeless dialogue between Tomei andLang accounts for only a small fraction of theshow's awkward moments: the vast major-B-3DAR

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