Despite the taut direction of Ryan Williams, particularly sinister underscoring by Rollie Mains and a compelling, bravura performance by Luke Hatmaker as the ringleader of a group of prison escapees, Street Theatre Company's The Desperate Hours is a rare misfire from the company and the creative team charged with bringing it to the stage.
Named the best play on Broadway in 1954, The Desperate Hours was probably more entertaining in those simpler times, but today it comes across as a tedious, overly sentimental and slow-moving drama that borders on camp in spite of efforts to update the vehicle with shiny new pop culture references. In STC's production, Williams has updated the play's action from the mid-20th century to 1985 (we know that's the setting thanks to a program note and all the music that comes from the radio and played prior to curtain), recrafting much of the language to make the story more relevant. Short of a complete rewriting of the script (which, we doubt playwright Joseph Hayes' heirs would cotton to), however, a cursory updating of those pop culture references just doesn't cut it.
Make no mistake about it, The Desperate Hours is a product of its own times and anachronisms abound throughout. Had the play been presented as a period piece (as last season's STC production of The Bad Seed-which also featured a live score composed and performed by Mains-was so creatively mounted), the result certainly would have been more satisfying and more entertaining. While Act One of the updated version produced some chills and crafted truly suspenseful moments as the plot progressed, Act Two was bogged down, the pace halted by the convoluted developments and interactions among the characters that fairly reek of melodramatic potboilers.
Of course, that is exactly what The Desperate Hours is-a melodramatic potboiler-and its characters are dramatic archetypes of a much earlier time. They are neither believable nor accessible in the early 21st century; instead, they seem plucked directly from a lackluster, noirish film and dropped right in the middle of a bad movie-of-the-week, circa 1985. Presenting the dated play as a period piece would have made what's actually in the script more palatable and compelling.
Set in small town Indiana, The Desperate Hours focuses on the Hilliard family (dad Daniel, mom Eleanor, daughter Cindy and son Ralphie) whose lives are upended when they are taken hostage in their home by a trio of prison escapees (brothers Glenn and Hank Griffin and Samuel Robish), bent on escape to more welcoming climes (if only town pump Helen Laskey shows up with a bag full of dough) and revenge. It seems Glenn Griffin has been nursing a grudge against local lawman Jesse Bard ever since he broke the convict's jaw at the end of a shoot-out some three years earlier.
As counterpoint to the unfolding hostage drama at the Hilliards' bucolic middle-class split-level, we are treated to tiresome scenes at the neighborhood constabulary, where the local cops and the state highway patrol regularly hold pissing contests to prove who's really packing the most heat, and where the arrival of a female, African-American FBI agent (there's a line about reporting her to J. Edgar Hoover, who died in 1972) upsets the old boys' applecart with an infusion of estrogen-fueled snottiness.
While scenes in the Hilliard home build up suspense, the unease created quickly deflates when the focus changes to police HQ, where no one seems to be doing much work. Rather, they sit around talking, providing exposition and backstory for what's happening right under their unsuspecting noses. In fact, the action seems plausible only if you view it from the perspective of the 1950s, yet it seems completely laughable today.
Hayes' plot is fairly predictable (but be prepared to jump out of your seat at the sound of gunfire) and the script's updating only seems confusing. Perhaps a drinking game is in order: Every time a character mutters a phrase best-suited to the '50s, or groaningly anachronistic, you down a shot of your favorite hooch. Otherwise, you'll find yourself rooting for the bad guys in hopes they'll mow down the whole Hilliard clan in a hail of gunfire. On the upside, you'll be in a swell mood by curtain.