There are few things more entrancing than witnessing a good live thriller in the theater: You can't press pause, you can't escape and you have no control over what's about to happen.
It's this claustrophobic thrill that's made Agatha Christie's "The Mousetrap" the longest-running play in history, and it's what Firehouse Theatre Project aims to capture with Frederick Knott's "Wait Until Dark."
Like a Hitchcock film, the play revolves around a MacGuffin, in this case a doll filled with high-grade heroin. Bad men are after the doll, which is in the possession of a woman recently blinded in a car accident. While she tries to outsmart her antagonists, they become more aggressive, culminating in a nail-biting conclusion.
Ciara McMillian stars as Susy Hendrix, the woman unknowingly thrust into the situation. Her husband transported the doll as a favor, and now three men are after it. They could just kill her if they knew where the doll was, but instead they must gain her trust to find it. McMillian is convincing in her portrayal of a newly blind woman, but she doesn't entirely engage the audience in her plight.
As usual, Nicklas Aliff puts in good work. He's Mike, a man pretending to be an old friend of Susy's husband. Aliff effectively navigates the waters of a man torn between his own interests and his desire to leave Susy unharmed. Phillip Silva plays Mike's fellow con man, known as Sgt. Carlino. Because of his accent and poor enunciation, Silva is difficult to understand at times.
The mastermind of the operation is a man named Roat, a ruthless and somewhat effeminate character. Frank Britton's interpretation is too cartoonlike to be taken seriously as the villain. All the character's menace is sapped away by Britton's affected voice, which sounds like a bad Peter Lorre impression.
For a play with its climax in complete darkness, the technical elements are essential to good production, and in this realm the show doesn't disappoint. Geno Brantley's spooky and well-thought-out lighting design pairs perfectly with Edwin Slipek's Greenwich Village apartment set (Slipek is a senior contributing editor at Style Weekly), and Margarette Joyner's costume design fits the 1960s.
The show undoubtedly will improve during its run, but opening night has a number of issues. Under David Emerson Toney's direction, the pacing and feeling of suspense are off. The twists and turns of the complicated plot can be challenging to follow; at intermission, my friend and I have difficulty piecing together exactly what each character believes is going on.
If it's staged well, "Wait Until Dark" is a fantastic show. But in this version, the intrigue should be amped up to stave off boredom, especially in its most suspenseful moments.
"Wait Until Dark" plays through Oct. 19 at Firehouse Theatre Project, 1609 W. Broad St. For information, visit firehousetheatre.org or call 355-2001.