Entertainment & the Arts: Friday, August 20, 1999

'Temporary Help': evil on the farm

by Misha Berson
Seattle Times theater critic

"Me? I'm a thriller! Excitement on every page," declares one of the characters in the new suspense drama "Temporary Help."

Theater review

"Temporary Help," by David Wiltse. Directed by Gordon Edelstein. Runs Tuesday-Sunday through Sept. 12 at A Contemporary Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle. $10-40. 206-292-7676. It is clear that David Wiltse's play, in its world premiere at A Contemporary Theatre under Gordon Edelstein's direction, wants very much to live up to the same claim.

But while this lurid little fable of lust and murder on a Nebraska farm delivers a few delicious jolts early in the game, the suspenseful shocks thin out considerably later.

The final crop yield here is a very well-acted but only modestly diverting throwback to the formulaic suspense dramas of a previous era - fertilized with a heavy powdering of pat, '90s-style pop psychology.

Though the program indicates that "Temporary Help" is set in the present, Hugh Landwehr's impressively detailed farmhouse set seems to exist in an Americana time-warp.

This is the home of Karl Streber (Thomas Kopache) and his wife, Faye (Stephanie Faracy), a (presumably) childless rural couple who are either very fond of retro-1950s furniture or are too cheap to replace a boxy television and lumpy couch that look almost as old as they are.

More likely, their museum of a parlor is meant to symbolize a pair of psyches frozen in brutal childhoods.

The power dynamic in the marriage, however, is redolent of both film noir thrillers (e.g., "The Postman Always Rings Twice") and today's more explicit movie-of-the-week TV mysteries.

It is quickly established that pretty, insecure Faye is under the thumb of one sarcastic and abusive hubby. And that the two are enmeshed in a bloody scam involving seduction, cattle thieving and murder - a combo you don't learn at the local 4-H Club.

Sniffing around the spread for clues to several local crimes is an ineffectual law-man, Ron Stucker (John Procaccino), who is suspicious of Karl and attracted to flirty Faye.

But a more critical figure is the fancifully named Vincent Castelnuovo-Tedesco (well-known TV actor Chad Allen), a hunk drifter who slips into the Strebers' lethal web as have others before him.

The bluesy, brooding incidental music from composer Bill Frisell and the eerie final moments of the play's first act (evocatively staged by Edelstein and lit by Peter Maradudin) set you up for white-knuckle tension and surprises to come.

But Act II mainly reinforces the themes firmly nailed down already by Wiltse (an author of popular mystery novels along with movie and stage scripts). Karl remains a macho horror who gets his kicks manipulating his wife and taunting other men. Faye is both his victim and accomplice. And both have been scarred by childhood abuse.

All this is restated and replayed, with the early abuse serving as a blanket explanation for a lot of bad behavior. "People are not quite the way they look," Vincent muses at one point. Yet as this tale unfolds neither the Strebers, nor their easy mark, Vincent, takes enough unforeseeable detours to defy expectation.

Even the turn-about climax doesn't pack the punch it's meant to.

The dialogue in "Temporary Help" veers between biting ironic humor and overripe melodrama. ("I feel myself opening like a flower at sunrise," gushes Faye in a moment of sexual afterglow).

But the well-cast actors deliver it all with laudable conviction.

Wiry as a whippet and radiating a cynicism that could scour rust, Kopache makes Karl a thoroughly repellent sociopath.

A sort of Midwest cousin of Blanche DuBois, Faracy's Faye flits compellingly from fragility to grasping seductiveness, and from luminous youthfulness to burned-out middle age.

Allen brings a thick-tongued vulnerability and wariness to the underdeveloped role of Vincent - along with a buff torso and boy-toy looks.

And Procaccino shambles around amusingly, turning the sketchy Ron into a heartland Columbo who could use a few more clues.

Copyright 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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