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Femme Fatale

Hopkins Makes Fine Work of Melodramatic Murder Mystery

Katherine J'ger and Steve Antonsen in Theatre Hopkins' Laura

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 2/20/2002


Vera Caspary and George Sklar

Curiously, just before the action got underway at a recent matinée performance of this classic mystery tale, the stage belonged to Lorraine, not Laura. That is to say that the musical chestnut "Sweet Lorraine" was playing over the PA system, not the David Raksin/Johnny Mercer standard "Laura." The latter was written for--and plays incessantly through--the notable 1944 film Laura, directed by Otto Preminger (and starring, along with Clifton Webb and Gene Tierney, a nonmonstrous Vincent Price as a roguish boy toy). Turns out there are lots of Lauras, as a sheet of production notes accompanying the program explains. Laura began as a never-produced play, which was reworked into a novel, then re-reworked into a film-noir screenplay.

The Laura story wears so many faces so well because at its core is an engaging twist of a mystery. How many dramatic works open up with the title character dead, in this case having just had her face blown off by a shotgun blast? When the curtain rises we see police Detective Mark McPherson (a crisp, cool Stephen Antonsen) in Laura Hunt's Manhattan apartment looking for clues as to why its young owner took one to the mug. (Set builder Bill Roche has done an admirable job creating a swanky bilevel apartment on the theater's tight stage.) Her likeness lives on, however, in an over-the-mantel oil painting that soon comes to haunt the hard-boiled, hardhearted gumshoe. (Is it necrophilia to fall in love with a dead woman?)

Like any good whodunit, there are a number of baggage-bearing chief suspects. They include Laura's fiancé, Shelby Carpenter, a hotheaded, oily "Southern gentleman" (played with deep-drawled swagger by Ben Thomas), and love-struck young Danny Dorgan (an eager Loren Dunn), who spent many an evening listening to jazz with Laura while hoping to make another kind of music with her. And then there's Waldo Lydecker (Mark Campion), Laura's vain, pompous, and ingratiatingly erudite silver-haired mentor, who claims to have "cultivated" Laura from "naive child" to sophisticated society darling. He insists on calling police officers "constables," dubs Shelby "willfully empty-headed," and struts about brandishing an ornate cane strictly for aesthetics. Campion is a noted local thespian who often gets the nod when a role calls for verbosity and brio. While he is not up to Clifton Webb's speed, he still packs plenty of highbrow bluster into his performance, despite a flubbed line or two (problems that will no doubt clear up the more he performs the role).

Those who have encountered some form of Laura in the past know that a major plot turn occurs about midway into the mystery--one that introduces a living, breathing love interest into the mix of mismatched men. Played with polish by Katherine Jaeger, she is identified only as "a Girl" in the program so as to maintain the mystery. And once the damsel gets into distress, the action snowballs onward toward a gun-blasting, prop-smashing climax.

Though set entirely in one apartment, the play never drags or seems overly static. Director Suzanne Pratt keeps the cast moving and cleverly creates an onstage "montage" to simulate an all-night conversation between McPherson and the Girl. And yes, "Laura" the song does eventually make it to the play's pleasing musical mix of 1940s big-band and hot-jazz numbers. A ready combination of stylishness and simplicity, Laura makes for a pleasing night of murder.

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