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Laura is back in town! The Hollywood whose heart she never left turned out to see the stage version of Vera Caspary's novel adapted by Caspary & George Sklar at the Tiffany Theatre on the Sunset Strip.
Linda Hamilton plays the title role in a version quite different from the 1944 film noir classic in which director Otto Preminger turned Caspary's mediocre suspense novel into a mesmerizing portrait of obsession. He used Gene Tierney's exotic beauty to create a mysterious enigmatic focus for the very different desires of two men, hard-boiled detective Mark McPherson and aesthetic Waldo Lydecker. Preminger never delves into Laura's past, her character, her emotions. The elusive Laura is a template of a love object.
Caspary fleshed out the character considerably in her 1947 stage play, writing Laura as a tempestuous coquette, brutally violent at times, then remorsefully generous. As a result, the play never casts the movie's haunting spell. Once we know Laura, she becomes simply the subject of a well-paced mundane thriller.
However, director Lynette McNeill gives the play the best production it's likely to have. She sets the mood at the very beginning when Detective Mark McPherson (Robin Thomas) stands mesmerized in his trench coat and hat before the picture of the legendary Laura while the famous theme song plays in the background. He takes off the coat and hat, limps restlessly around the living room, desultorily pushing papers around the desk, absorbing the feel of the woman who lived there, the woman he thinks has been murdered. One of McNeill's master strokes is the time alone she gives her characters, letting McPherson set the tone for the first act and leaving it to the maid Bessie set up the third.
McPherson falls asleep and is awakened by a woman. It's Laura, not her ghost. Another woman, to whom she had lent her apartment, was the victim. Laura's return is an apparent shock to those who knew her best: her fiancé Shelby Carpenter (Tom Astor), her maid Bessie (Myra Turley), her landlady Mrs. Dorgan (Karen Tarleton) who anguishes over Laura's effect on her impressionable jazz buff son Danny (Matthew Godfrey), and, most intensely of all, the mentor who made her what she is today, Waldo Lydecker (Stanley Kamel).
The play moves briskly along the who-done-it path winding through the growing relationship between McPherson and his dream come true.
We see Laura first as Waldo's creation with all the mannerisms of her era. As the play goes on, she gradually drops them and, strongly defined by Hamilton, becomes a woman with a mind of her own struggling to know what that is after years of being shaped by Waldo. The actress always has to play against the movie magic of the elusive Laura. Its the difference between the diffuse enchantment of the portrait used in the film and the studio photograph used in the play.
Hamilton, who played the luminous heroine in TV's Beauty and the Beast and the magnetic amazon in The Terminator movies, has picked a very different challenge for her LA stage debut and has the chops to play the role as written. She's not helped by her first act entrance costume, far too glamorous for a girl driving home from a week-end at her country cabin.
Robin Thomas brings a twinkling, cool and literate charm to the tough detective, finding ways to make him far more attractive and credible than McPhersons we have known. He also brings distinctive facets to a small role as Joan Allen's husband in the current movie The Contender.
Kamel breaks new ground with the villainous Waldo whose character has also been made more complex for the stage version. He's written less as a homosexual and more as a man who, whatever his feelings for women, has dreamed Laura up and sees her as the person he wants, not just to have, but to be.
Tarleton and Turley shine in the small roles of Mrs. Dorgan and Bessie respectively. Astor has a great mellow voice but his initial kiss of his revenant fiancé is glaringly peckish. Godfrey is a charismatic Danny but seems too old for the part.
The set and costumes are a polished art deco symphony in black and white, perhaps a film noir tribute.
Although the play has more psychological detail and perhaps reality than the movie, the film is the kind of classic which the novel and play will never be. The characters of the landlady and her son only underscore Laura's love of jazz and don't make up for the absence of that marvelous feline lady played in the film by Judith Anderson.
But the play's Laura has one marvelous line that catches her era with a neon glow: You can't call me a murderer and light my cigarette.
Written by Vera Caspary and George Sklar
Directed by Lynette McNeill
Cast: Laura (Linda Hamilton), Mark McPherson (Robin Thomas), Waldo Lydecker (Stanley Kamel), Shelby Carpenter (Tom Astor), Bessie Clary (Myra Turley), Danny Dorgan (Matthew Godfrey), Mrs. Dorgan (Karen Tarleton).
Set Design: John Iacovelli
Lighting Design: Monique L'Heureux
Costume Design: Dick Magnanti
Sound Design: Christopher Hardin
Laura Theme composed by David Raksin
Running time: Two hours without intermission
Tiffany Theatre, 8532 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood
Phone: (310) 289-2999
11/10//2000- 12/17/2000; opened 11/10
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock
based on 11/1 performance