Anthony Horowitz has written an unnerving play with enough twists and turns for a ride in a theme park. "Mindgame" has us wondering by the end, just when the game began, but it begins the moment you enter director Ken Russell's world and visit Fair Fields, the asylum for the criminally insane.
Mark Styler (Lee Godart) is a writer of pulp crime novels whose subjects are serial killers. We're told he has written books about Jeffrey Daumer and Andre Chikatilo (the Russian "Jack the Ripper") that sold well, and now he is consumed with a new subject, the psychopathic Easterman who is in solitary confinement 24/7.
Styler has obtained permission from the head of the asylum to interview Easterman, which is quite a coup given that the dangerously crazy murderer is allowed no visitors. As the play opens, Styler is sitting in Dr. Farquhar's office, expecting the doctor to bring Easterman in shortly. Being as astute observer of human behavior, Styler's questions begin before the doctor enters. Speaking into a tape recorder, he wonders why there is a skeleton in the psychiatrist's study.
When Dr. Farquhar (Keith Carradine) finally enters carrying golf clubs through a door that isn't a door, from a golf game that wasn't played, wearing a mustache that isn't a mustache, the play takes on the feel of a crazy Groucho Marx movie. He introduces himself and explains that the "q" in his name is silent.
Farquhar calls for Nurse Plimpton (Kathleen McNenny), who is dressed like a bimbo in white and pink shiny spandex, to make some tea for the weary Styler. There's some serious comedic stage business involving lighters and cigarettes, secret drawers, a missing letter, forgotten appointment, misplaced reading glasses, and we begin to wonder when the rubber chicken will come flying out. Mostly though, we wonder if we're in the rubber room and who the lunatics are that are running the asylum. Maybe Styler has obtained the interview with the wrong inmate.
The play takes awhile to build suspense, like a slow-climbing roller-coaster, but once at the top it swoops with abandon. The silliness turns sharply into sadism and the fear is palpable. Even Plimpton seems terrified. Through a maze of manipulations and memories, dark secrets are revealed. Each character's persona changes before our eyes and motives and madness itself are spun inside-out. Discussions of treatments for the criminally insane that involve psychodrama put us on notice. Exactly what are we watching, and why does there seem to be no escape?
Carradine delivers a first-rate performance as Dr. Farquhar, both charming and cunning. The play pivots on his ability to go from zero to 60 in a moment. Godart is a wonderful foil and matches Carradine's cunning with calculated moves of his own. Rounding out the trio is McNenny who serves up the biggest surprises of all as her character changes with her costumes.
Ordinarily, such a crazy play would receive an insanely great review, but there are problems. At more than two hours, "Mindgame" is too long, and the intermission breaks up the threads of suspense. Horowitz really needs to speed up the roller-coaster climb and get to the punch lines faster -- a bit of dialogue tightening would make a big difference.
After the show, people connected with the play said that Horowitz was still working on it, and if he takes this column's advice, we immodestly believe that "Mindgame" has a future with a long-run. As of now, the show lists a closing date of January 4, which perhaps means that the script is undergoing a bit of revision and it will reopen soon. But maybe not, so don't take chances. See "Mindgame" before it closes.
Barbara Mehlman & Geri Manus