By Philip Pearce
THE DESPERATE HOURS, which just opened a two-week run on the Morgan Stock Stage at Monterey Peninsula College, is two hours of desperately loud theater.
Influenced by actual events back in the 1950s, Joseph Hayes wrote a critically praised debut novel, adapted it for a Tony-winning Broadway hit and saw it emerge in 1955 as a high caliber Hollywood movie. It tells the story of a trio of escaped convicts who terrorize a suburban family by turning their up-market home into a secret hideout from the law.
Hayes’ three original male jailbirds have become females in this new MPC version, and the gender switch works well enough. When student actors Lauren Young, Persis Anne Tomingas and Naiya Biddle slide like snakes through different doors of Phil Hopfner and Jennifer Newman’s Cincinnati living room they are an appropriately terrifying threesome, their upper bodies spider-webbed with tattoos, their hair hanging loose and menacing as the locks of harpies.
In the central role of their gang leader, which was played on Broadway by Paul Newman and on the screen by Humphrey Bogart, Young knows how to dominate a scene. The trouble is that, almost from the moment she steps on stage, she chooses to do it by shouting at such full volume and at such a high emotional pitch that the play has little or no way to further intensify and grab you as it moves toward a final climax. She has already pulled out all the stops. Ms Young, as she proved in last year’s Present Laughter, is a dynamic stage personality. The result here is that the rest of this cast, deliberately or inadvertently, echoes her relentless machine-gun delivery.
It becomes a shouting match which hides the complexity of Hayes’ writing. The Desperate Hours rises above predictable cop melodrama and becomes a compelling character study in the way an act of violence transforms both perpetrator and victim into disturbingly different human beings. Hayes’ script supplies moments of quiet that are largely missing from this production, times of tense but silent waiting and reflection for Ms Young’s Glenda Griffin and for Dan, Hopfner’s wise but wary father of the beleaguered Hilliard family. When Glenda keeps up a menacing murmur of the words “Tickety-tickety-tick,” she isn’t just reminding Dan and his family of the torture of not knowing how long their domestic siege is going to last. She’s dramatizing an exercise she and Dan are both engaged in—a nagging lust to penetrate whatever it is that makes the mind and soul of this enemy of mine tick—and to discover how I can I exploit that knowledge to gain what I want. In these times of grim waiting, Griffin offers comments on the psychology of each of the Hilliards which show surprisingly shrewd insight for a convicted killer. Young simply offers them as snide explosions of contempt and the character consequently loses depth and, yes, evens a measure of sympathy. She finally does a well-acted eruption of insane rage that is meant to shock us into realizing that she isn’t just a ruthless thug but a dangerous psychopath. But there’s no real surprise and no real discovery. It’s been explosively clear almost from the start that’s exactly what she is.
You can’t help wondering why a gang who threaten to kill any Hilliard who makes a move to reveal that the family are being held hostage, can be so indifferent to the power of their own howls and shrieks to attract attention from the world outside.
It all happens in director Laura Coté’s excellent set, which provides playing areas for two floors of the Hilliard house as well as a sheriff’s headquarters and an attic spy room across the street, both controlled by an anxious Deputy Sheriff named Jesse Bard, played with a lot of nervous energy by Islam Omer. Others in the cast include Ian Baer as a perky pre-teen Ralph Hilliard and Jordyn Howell as his sister Cindy, whose fiancé Chuck (Bryan Allred) helps Bard to close in on the Hilliards’ shouting invaders.
Photo by Laura Coté