True Lies

Whoever said that honesty is the best policy must not have lived in Chantbury, London, during the 1930s, a time and place where honesty was often suppressed in favor of creating a world where marriages are perfect and everyone is your friend. This is the setting for Dangerous Corner, J.B. Priestley's soap-operatic comedy about the hidden love, lies, and betrayal that exist beneath the surface of picture-perfect lives. Dangerous Corner first opened on Broadway in the early 1930s after undergoing several rewrites following its original London production. It is presented here with all of the original dialogue restored, though it is hard to imagine Priestley tampering with such a seamless, tense story. Each excuse, glance, and flighty character gesture is a carefully constructed building block in a mystery surrounding the apparent suicide of a vibrant young man named Martin.

From the benign opening you would never guess you are about to be engulfed in a whirlwind thriller. Four well-dressed women sit in an elegantly decorated drawing room exchanging polite, but ultimately dull, after-dinner chitchat. Two of them, Betty (Jaime West) and Freda (Karen Sternberg), are married to successful partners in a publishing firm, while a third woman, Olwen (Catherine McNelis), seems content being single as long as she is part of their tight-knit group.

Later the men enter in suits and ties, tease the women, and help themselves to bottles of liquor. To add to the occasion, Freda casually offers cigars from a musical cigarette box to her guests, not realizing the life-changing conflicts this innocent gesture is about to ignite. All of the ensuing revelations can be traced back to this box, given to Martin the night he killed himself. Those who recognize the box must have been at his house on the day of his unexpected death, though no one has ever said as much before. Sensing that something is amiss, Martin's brother Robert (Chris Thorn) drops his manners and turns the party into an all-night interrogation.

Once the finger-pointing begins, the play turns into a deliciously enthralling melodrama of brash accusations and outlandish confessions. McNelis is the first actress to produce mascara-smudging tears in the midst of a passionate scene, instantly adding to the story's delight. If the actors acknowledged the outrageousness of the situation in their performances, the humor would be lost. It is their total and sincere investment in this material that pulls us into their wild world and makes us care about the outcome.

The theme of false truth and dirty secrets is heightened by the costumes. Sternberg makes great use of Freda's ability to deliver silencing cold looks and biting commentary while sashaying across the room in a glamorous studded evening gown. Justin R. Holcomb, understudying the role of Charles Stanton in this performance, is entirely convincing as an impeccably dressed businessman who easily announces shocking sins to his colleagues without ever losing the smile on his face.

By the end of the day, honesty has been utterly proved to be the worst of all policies, but in case there is still any doubt, Priestly rewinds the story from its emotional end to its benign beginning, showing us what would have happened if a popular radio tune had distracted the guests from discussing the musical cigarette box. The results are so radically different that it leaves you wondering about the benefits of telling the truth, and whether we, like these characters, would be better off just keeping it to ourselves.

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