THEATER | Park Square’s “Panic” is a fun mystery that should learn to quit while it’s ahead

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It’s hard to quit while you’re ahead in theater. Knowing when and how to stop is almost more vital than knowing how to get a story started in the first place. And Panic, now playing at Park Square Theatre, is a hell of a story. It’s witty, romantic, hilarious, ominous, and quite possibly one of the most entertaining first acts in a play I’ve seen in a very long while. The first scene of the second act is also a doozy, and well-matched to all that came before it. But then it kept going. And going.

First off, I just have to say how excited I am to see Carin Bratlie getting a chance to sit in the director’s chair at one of the really big stages here in the Twin Cities. She does such stellar directing work in many of the smaller companies around town, including her own, Theatre Pro Rata. Seeing a Carin Bratlie production is often a slippery thing because one of the primary reasons she’s so good at what she does is you almost never see her pulling the strings. There’s nothing flashy just for flashiness’s sake.

The philosophy behind Carin Bratlie’s work is always to put the script first. If you trust the script, it will tell you the production which it needs. Doing this, she manages to pull some amazing performances out of her actors, frequently bringing them to new levels of accomplishment. This is clearest when she’s working at Pro Rata on the classic scripts of previous centuries. You know you’re in good hands because you understand everything that’s being said and done in front of you. Archaic language and old methods of stagecraft are no barrier when Bratlie’s at the helm. Of course, when the script isn’t exactly perfect, assured direction and top drawer acting can only take you so far. I sincerely hope Panic is the first of many higher-profile directing assignments for Bratlie on the larger stages around town. She’s earned it, and the theaters would be the better for it.

OK, enough of my love letter to Carin Bratlie, you say. Let’s get back to the play at hand. Panic also has in its favor a delightful ensemble of actors reveling in the mischief of the script, led by the husband-and-wife team of Stephen D’Ambrose and Barbara Kingsley as suspense film director Henry Lockwood and his wife and artistic partner-in-crime Emma Lockwood. Rounding out the cast are Garry Geiken as French film critic and aspiring director Alain Duplay, Jen Maren as the Lockwoods’ loyal assistant Miriam Stockton, Heidi Fellner as the desperate blackmailer Liliane Bernard, and Simone H. Pierce as the mysterious and trigger-happy Juliet Cottard. There’s a red herring in that cast list, as any careful peruser of the program can ferret out, but I’m going to try very hard not to be a spoiler, so read on.

Filmmaker Henry Lockwood is in Paris for the premiere of his new thriller Panic with his wife Emma and assistant Miriam in tow. Film critic and friend Alain is there to entertain them and help generate some good press. Emma has been in poor health and rebels against the limited range of things she’s allowed to do. The night of the big premiere, while the men are off at the screening of the film, Liliane, a manic woman in a red coat, appears to Miriam. Liliane makes scandalous accusations against Henry, dropping her biggest bombshell on her way out the door. Miriam struggles to find a way to pay off Liliane, destroy the evidence against Henry, and somehow keep it all from the fragile Emma. Miriam enlists Alain’s help in the operation but despite their best efforts, by the end of the first act they are all held at gunpoint and a shot rings out just as the lights go down for intermission.

The first scene of the second act fairly crackles along as the mystery unravels in several different directions. Emma takes charge of getting to the truth even as everyone around her tries to shield her from it. Kingsley gets a great many of the evening’s best lines and she makes the most of every one. When the others urge her, “This young woman is not to be believed,” Emma responds, “Then it doesn’t matter what she tells me, does it?”

By the close of the scene, all appears resolved. As one solitary character kneels in prayer, then takes a seat again, chuckling a little, the light begins to fade. “Hmmm,” I thought. “A bit ambiguous, but I like it. There’s that one loose end but it doesn’t bother me too much. That was a very satisfying evening…oh wait. There’s more.”

And that’s when Panic started to lose me. Then there was yet another scene, and Panic really lost me. The last minute and a half of the play has a lovely reversal that redeems all the characters left standing with some delightfully dark humor just as the lights, finally, mercifully, fade for the last time. But there’s a long wait for that last 90 seconds.

The script won an Edgar Allen Poe Award for Best Play in 2008 from the Mystery Writers of America, so I can only assume that the second half of act two reads better than it plays. As a reader of a mystery, being able to take the text and its myriad revelations at your own pace, and double back if needed to read something again, it might be more satisfying. The problem with that second chunk of act two for a viewer, at least for this viewer, is I honestly just stopped caring. I’d been completely smitten with these characters and their adept methods of dancing around one another, and the truth. But the heart and soul of the piece seemed to check out for two full scenes in favor of revelations that not only weren’t asked for, I found I didn’t even need them. I felt like one of the frustrated robots in Mystery Science Theater 3000 trapped watching a movie that refused to wrap up, shouting, “END! END!!!”

The funny thing is, the part of the production that I feared would lose me ended up absolutely entrancing me instead. Panic begins with Henry recounting the plot of a movie to Alain. It quickly becomes clear that, yes, he’s probably going to tell us the whole story. Uh oh. But then, it’s fascinating, and not just the story but the way in which Henry is telling it. Then Emma comes in and begins to share the story of a book she just read that she thinks holds promise for a possible film for Henry. This time, I didn’t worry as much because I found I wanted her to tell me the story. The playwright Joseph Goodrich knows how to spin a tale. These scenes were also more about the characters: the way they told stories to one another, and how they built a special bond in sharing stories together, grappling with the nuts and bolts of the creative process.

D’Ambrose and Kingsley are wonderful here. They’re not just bonding as performers and characters, they’re bonding with their audience as well. This bout of storytelling is some of the very best material of the evening, and perhaps tellingly, has little or nothing to do with the blackmail plotline and its resolution. In fact, if the writer had used this trick of storytelling to somehow unfold the revelations the play insisted on presenting to us in the second half, the script might have been spectacular. I kept waiting for the relationship of the Lockwoods and their way with language and banter (very Nick and Nora Charles in some ways) to reassert itself and get the play back on solid footing.

Panic is still well worth seeing for that wonderful first act. It’s also worth coming back from intermission to see that great first scene, and those final 90 seconds. The actors are in fine form, and Bratlie directs the whole affair with a strong hand, but a light touch.

The design team is also top notch, so much so I feel remiss not saying more about them. Katharine Horowitz’s sound design, like the script, is full of cheeky references to the movies of old. Kelsey Glasener’s costumes add a layer of glamour on top of Kirby Moore’s gorgeous set and props. Michael P. Kittel gets positively painterly with the lights here, smoothly transitioning us from one scene to the next with some dazzling splashes of color.

Panic is so close to being fantastic, it kind of breaks my heart that it never quite gets there. For big stretches of the evening, it’s a hell of fun ride.