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A CurtainUp Review
The Woman in Black

by Les Gutman
Actor: I did not believe in ghosts.
Kipps: What other explanation is there?
---Patrick Mallatratt

The summer is upon us and, although the weather outside may be chilly and rainy, soon enough it will be swelteringly hot and humid. What better way to cool off on such a day than with a bone-chilling ghost story? That's precisely what we have in The Lady in Black, which has been running for thirteen years in London's West End. This summer, the play makes its New York debut, via a well-received production from San Diego's Old Globe Theatre.

The weather forecast for onstage also calls for rain, and it's not going to get any better. The Minetta Lane has been transformed by set designer James Noone into a small Victorian theater in London. Even before the play begins, we hear the rain outside and the crackle of thunder. The climate is worse yet at the eerie and secluded estate where much of the action takes place, a thicket of fog often engulfing the marshy land.

Arthur Kipps (Keith Baxter) has been plagued most of his adult life by an experience that began when he was a young solicitor. Sent to a small, remote village to sort out the estate of of the recently-deceased Alice Drablow, a client of his firm, he soon became ensnared in the horrific revenge meted out by the ghost, known as The Woman in Black (Leslie Kalarchian). Advancing in years now, Kipps retains the services of an actor (Jared Reed) to help him tell the story to an audience, in the hope that in the telling he will exorcise the spectre from him. What we watch, then, is the rehearsal of his play, crafted from Kipps's manuscript and surprisingly terror-filled. The actor assumes the role of Kipps, while Kipps portrays a variety of other characters with whom the young solicitor becomes engaged during the engagement. I shall say no more, except to pass along the well-publicized news that, when the story reaches its end, there is one more startling surprise lurking.

This staging is distinguished by the marvelous performances on display, and the artful, seemingly simple but extremely effective, production values. The underlying play, although it hits all of the required marks for the genre, might otherwise be viewed as slim and inconsequential.

Keith Baxter, a fine actor with a long classical pedigree, possesses a fragile energy as Kipps and is delicious in his other characterizations. One's only gripe might be a wish to see him employed in a more substantial venture. The younger Mr. Reed is a good match, aptly but not overly theatrical and in all respects convincing. Ms. Kalarchian, whom we see but don't hear, is appropriately spooky.

James Noone's black and gray set hides many secrets that give the play its punch, and the lighting design of Ken Billington and Brian Monahan lends not only the required eerie, shadowy qualities, but a lovely sepia tone that conveys a vintage sense to many scenes as well. Noel Taylor's costumes are thoroughly evocative, and Chris Walker's sound design -- an essential element to any ghost story, with its creaky floor boards, howling wind and more -- cranks up the suspense to just the right level.

The only bad news: you'll have to pay for the whole seat, even though you'll rarely use more than the edge.

The Woman in Black
by Stephen Mallatratt based on Susan Hill's (out-of-print) novel
Directed by Patrick Garland
with Keith Baxter, Jared Reed and Leslie Kalarchian
Set Design: James Noone
Costume Design: Noel Taylor
Lighting Design: Ken Billington and Brian Monahan
Sound Design: Chris R. Walker
Running Time: 1 hour, 25 minutes including intermission
Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane (a narrow block, east of 6th Av., between West 3rd and Bleecker Streets)
Telephone (212) 307-4100
Opening June 4, 2001, open run
Mon - Fri @8, Wed @2, Sat @7 and 10:30; $25-55
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 6/2/01 performance


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