With the recent popularity of Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, grisly theater has suddenly become very hip. The Pillowman made a smoldering impression on Broadway last year, while McDonagh's newest New York production, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, which leaves the stage bathed in blood, sold out its Off-Broadway run and will soon begin previews uptown. Audiences, it would seem, are eager to be tormented, even if it is vicariously from the comfort of their own seats. Now the Aussies have answered with their own psychological thriller, and although it lacks the pervasive social agenda that underpins much of McDonagh's work (not to mention the copious amounts of violence and blood), Freak Winds is a deliciously disturbing—and often helplessly humorous—addition to the canon of harrowing theatrical fare.
At the helm is Marshall Napier, who has managed to pull off a daunting triple feat. Not only does he write, direct, and star in the same play, but he manages to do each thing exceptionally well. Of course, experience is on his side—Freak Winds, which is his first full-length play, was already successfully produced in both Australia and New Zealand. And thanks to Hair of the Dog Productions, the play has found a new home tucked into the cozy Arclight Theater on the Upper West Side. Deftly acted and meticulously directed, Freak Winds draws us into a stormy night of ominous, mysteriously powerful forces.
Following up on a call, young insurance salesman Henry Crumb (Damian de Montemas) finds himself at the home of Ernest (Napier). Henry barely steps through the door when a tree falls and crushes his new Mercedes. Resigned to waiting out the storm in Ernest's comfortable living room, Henry begins his sales pitch. "What insurance buys you is peace of mind," he insists, but then, dodging his host's smart criticism, he concedes, "It can't protect you against being human."
Indeed, Henry's peace of mind soon dissipates as he is confronted with eerie and foreboding circumstances, ranging from the mildly curious—Ernest's sudden spells of nausea—to the unquestionably alarming—Henry's discovery of scrapbooks filled with newspaper clippings of horrendous murders. Napier's use of conventional horror devices brings welcome levity to the suspense, and the audience can't help but chuckle at the sound of a knife being sharpened when Ernest periodically leaves the room. It's testament to his finely honed script that Napier shrewdly disarms his audiences with obvious tricks, only to shock them with abrupt twists and turns (not to be revealed here).
As the presumably innocent salesman, de Montemas becomes convincingly disheveled, frustrated, and irate as he leads us on his quest to sift through multiple red herrings, uncover the truth, and escape. Napier's script is very wordy, and much of the humor depends on the actors' timing as they toss off bits of witty repartee. Thankfully, Napier and de Montemas deliver the zippy banter with expert elocution, and they are matched by Tamara Lovatt-Smith, who gives a terrific performance as Myra, Ernest's wheelchair-bound companion.
Although Napier's characters sometimes talk in circles, this only increases Henry's (and our) need to sort things out and understand what is really happening. Is Ernest a psychopath who is planning to kill Henry? And is Myra his roommate, daughter, lover, or worse?
Jeremy Chernick has devised a warm, inviting set that successfully belies the peculiarity of its inhabitants, while Andrew Ivanov has created an impressive array of creepy sounds.
Without taking itself too seriously, Freak Winds delves into a surreal world of madness and psychosexuality, and Napier's script lightly touches on Ernest's need to better understand humanity. He's interested in how and why we suffer, as well as how we can all (murderers included) share the common state of being human. But within the confines of this stormy evening, it's not certain what—if anything—we can believe, and Freak Winds quite winningly becomes little more than an enormously enjoyable thriller.