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Play 'Temporary Help' Unsatisfying

by The Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) -- Karl Streber, the Nebraska farmer at the center of David Wiltse's play, Temporary Help, has an unusual racket.

He hires young drifters to help him with his chores, then subtly involves them in complicated sex games with him and his reluctant wife, Faye. After he tires of the young men, he kills them and, it's implied, feeds their corpses to his livestock.

Temporary Help is a kind of modern-day Sweeney Todd, with all the revenge musical's gore and mayhem but little of its humor or pathos.

The play, based on a true story, is buoyed by strong performances and a few scenes that crackle with carefully wrought suspense. Overall, though, it makes for an unsatisfying evening of theater -- mildly disturbing without being very engaging or thought-provoking. It's running off-Broadway at the Revelation Theater.

Chad Allen, formerly of television's Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, plays the Strebers' current prey, Vincent. At first, he seems an ideal plaything for Karl -- dumb, naive and good-looking.

As he settles into the Streber household, though, Vincent begins to display a cunning of his own. He, Karl and Faye become entangled in a battle of wits, each driven by entirely separate motivations.

The most interesting player in the battle is Faye (Margaret Colin), who is torn between her habitual devotion to her husband and a desire to break away from his unquenchable thirst for violence and sex.

Her inner struggle is well portrayed by Colin, whose sympathetic performance gives the play a moral grounding.

Colin is especially good in a scene where, motherlike, she reads aloud to Vincent, then hesitantly seduces him ("You don't think I'm that old, do you?") and finally persuades him to help her escape Karl.

It's a scene meant to convey not only Faye's confusion but what seems to be one of the play's themes -- that people's desires are often contradictory and never quite what they seem. Thanks in part to Colin and assured direction by Leslie L. Smith, it is the evening's most effective statement of that theme.

Unfortunately, most of the other scenes aren't as compelling, nor are the characters of Karl (Robert Cuccioli) and Vincent particularly believable. They appear as macho archetypes, all swagger and barely suppressed rage.

Both Cuccioli and Allen do what they can. As Karl, Cuccioli is wild-eyed and unpredictable, giving the play an infusion of suspense. Allen is convincing as he charts Vincent's descent into treachery.

For a psychological thriller to truly succeed, however, the villains must be at least as interesting as the heroine. In Temporary Help, they're just thugs.

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