Los Angeles Theater Review: NIGHT WATCH (Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills)

by Tom Chaits on February 5, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles

A SWELL WHODUNNIT CREATES ANOTHER MYSTERY: WHY THIS ACTRESS?

Part Rear Window, part Gaslight, Night Watch is currently dialing up the suspense at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills.  Lucille Fletcher’s yarn unfolds around Elaine Wheeler (Jennifer Lee Laks), a rich and troubled woman who sees dead people from her window in the Kips Bay section of NYC. The only problem is no one else sees them, and police investigations yield no bodies and no evidence of any crimes being committed. Elaine insists she saw what she saw and her husband John (Martin Thompson), maid Helga (Judy Nazemetz), and best friend Blanche (Christine Joelle) think she’s losing her marbles. Psychiatrist Dr. Tracy Lake (Leda Siskind) is called in to sort things out; if not, it’s off to a Swiss sanitarium for poor put upon Elaine.

Jennifer Laks and Martin Thompson

The script is at all times involving. Drawn from old-fashioned suspense, mystery, and thriller genres, Ms. Fletcher peppers the plot with plenty of twists and surprises to keep the audience guessing as to what’s really going on (to say more would ruin the viewing experience). She is a master at writing “damsel in distress” story lines–clearly evident in her earlier works, including her best known opus, Sorry, Wrong Number.

Martin Thompson, Jennifer Laks and Christine JoëlleAs directed by Bruce Gray, the action is set in the 70s, yet the show plays out like a classic movie from the 40s. He sets a good tone for the piece and coaxes believable performances from most of the cast with two exceptions. Ms. Siskind is entirely too big for the role of the shrink. Psychiatrists would never be as assertive as she is playing the character. In addition she has some very annoying mannerisms (wild and nearly non-stop hand gestures) which Mr. Gray should have reeled in. The big misstep however is the casting of Ms. Laks in the lead. She is always simply gnawing to watch, and unfortunately she barely ever leaves the stage. She gives a completely disingenuous performance that rings false at every turn. She looks great but is the epitome of bad soap-opera acting. Luckily the fine work by the rest of the cast prevents her from wrecking the entire show.

Jennifer Laks, Lary Ohlson and Christine Joëlle

As is usually the case with shows at Theatre 40, all the technical aspects of the production are top drawer. No detail has been spared in Jeff G. Rack’s beautiful set design, which fills the space perfectly. A large window frame, through which Elaine witnesses the crimes, hangs diagonally between the stage and the audience, allowing lighting designer Ric Zimmerman to work his magic in stellar style. Costume designer Michele Young and sound designer Bill Froggatt add to the perfection.

Jennifer Laks, Martin Thompson, David Hunt Stafford and Christine Joëlle

If you are a fan of suspense mysteries and pride yourself on being able to figure out who did what to whom, where, when, and why, then you won’t be disappointed by the unexpected turns the story takes. Just concentrate on the action and try to block out Ms. Laks as much as possible and you’ll have a fine time playing sleuth.

Martin Thompson and Christine Joëlle

photos by Ed Krieger

Night Watch
Theatre 40
Reuben Cordoba Theatre at Beverly Hills High School
241 S. Moreno Dr. in Beverly Hills
scheduled to end on February 24, 2014
for tickets, call (310) 364-0535 or visit www.theatre40.org

{ 3 comments }

Silentium Dembonum February 8, 2014 at 10:46 am

He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches. Or in this case reviews. The problem is you did not consistently use the phrase, in my opinion, before uttering some of what you pass as fact. Words are important. As a writer you should know that.

Ms. Laks is not always gnawing to watch. Perhaps you caught her on a bad night. Yours, not hers. Perhaps she triggers something from your past that clouds your perception around her work. Perhaps you failed to notice the subtle transitions between feigned madness and dulcet cajoling. Or the strained manner in which she continually sought the dying affections of her husband, all the while battling murderous desire born of betrayal. Or the way Ms. Laks would glide, storm, tip toe and hold the stage at any given moment with the right tempo and energy, and always when the moment demanded.

I gather from your opinionated statement – “She is always…”, you have seen Ms. Laks in other productions, which would suggest she has been cast before. That leads me to believe there is value in her work. Having seen the show twice now [brought a friend who begged to see the show after my praise of the performance] I know that to be true. Ms. Laks is a fine actress. And if the rest of the cast is pleasing to watch, it is due in no small part to the dedication and depth of Ms. Laks’ work. She grounds the show in a role that is part con, part lunatic, part heartbreak and part Valkyrie.

You may want to give the show, and specifically Ms. Laks, a second viewing. Whether you do or not, please consider your words a bit more cautiously when you write. This review gnawed at me a little.

Tom Chaits February 9, 2014 at 3:46 pm

I can only report on the performance I saw. Perhaps Ms. Laks was having an off night … perhaps not. My theater companion had a similar reaction to her performance as did many of the people I overheard talking during the intermission and after the show. Upon exiting, the woman sitting next to me turned to me and said, “That lead girl was just terrible.” I doubt anyone who read the review thought my “she is always” comment was an indictment of her entire body of work. It solely referred to that performance. I’m happy for you that you did not have a similar experience and found so many intriguing layers to her interpretation of the character. They were nowhere to be seen the night I attended.

William H. February 9, 2014 at 3:55 pm

Wow….what play did she see? I went to the show with 4 friends and we all thought that actress was not very good and definitely the weak link in the show.

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