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|A CurtainUp Review
Turn of the Screw
Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher and director Melia Bensussen, who last year collaborated on Scotland Road an intriguing mystery revolving around the Titanic (see link) have now turned to Henry James' spooky country house psychodrama, The Turn of the Screw. Hatcher's adaptation sticks closely to the original which I reread in preparation of letting myself get carried away -- as the neurotic governess at the center of the story lets herself get carried away by her two beautiful but awful young charges. Unlike James, who tended to spend endless pages getting to the heart of things, the adaptation skips past the country house Christmas party at which the story is related by one of the guests over the course of several nights.
Those looking for the teacups and acouterments of the Jamesian milieu, as in the Lincoln Center revival of The Heiress or similarly detailed movies of recent vintage, may find the Primary Stages offering quite a remove from their expectations. A single Queen Anne chair and a staircase at center stage are all there is to evoke the Harley street home where this horror tale begins and country estate where most of it plays out.
The play's economy of scale extends to the casting, with Enid Graham as the governess and the versatile Rocco Sisto playing everyone else: The story's narrator, the charismatic Master who "seduces" the overly romantic and inexperienced governess to oversee his orphaned niece and nephew, Mrs. Grose the kindly and loyal housekeeper, the angelic but evil-possessed 8-year-old Flora and her 10-year-old brother Miles. The evil takes the form of two "ghosts"" of former servants, the Master's valet Peter Quint and the former governess, Miss Jessell.
This bare bones setup -- Sisto, does his character switches without makeup or costume changes -- is something of an actor's dream. While I usually dislike seeing adults play young children, in this case requiring the audience to suspend belief and accept Sisto as whatever character he is playing fits the weird goings on at Bly. While some of this sleight-of-hand acting gets a bit tiresome, it does the job in making us to see and hear and fear what the governess experiences. Ms. Graham's metamorphoses from a romantic innocent abroad to desperate Victorian style de-programmer of two children possessed by evil (brainwashed?) is filled with intensity bordering on extreme neurosis. Hatcher smartly embellishes the novella's references to country houses with unmentionable relatives kept in confinement by having the governess give voice to links between her admiration of her employer and Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester. When this "lonely heroine at the helm of a ship named Bly"" has her final and overwrought scene with young Miles, she becomes as much in need of being rescued as rescuer.
David Van Tieghem's original music and sound design do their usual fine job in accentuating the atmosphere. Dan Kotlowitz's lighting powerfully supports the gloomy aura.
Turn of the Screw runs for 90 minutes without intermission. That's about as much time as anyone would want to spend with a short story that James allowed to boil over (as in potboiler) to that odd length rarely published these days, the novella. Here's hoping that when Hatcher and this production team next return to Primary Stages it will be be with something cooked up from Hatcher's own fertile imagination.