Friday, January 4, 2008

Thriller follows Centerstage director to Federal Way

Alan Bryce, artistic director of Centerstage Theatre in Federal Way, is no Johnny Come Lately to the world of theater. He’s an actor, a director and a playwright with extensive experience in New York and London. We are fortunate that he decided to settle in the Puget Sound Area.

And now we are blessed with the opportunity to see a revision of one of his earliest plays, “Nightmare of a Married Man,” which was a big hit in the London fringe circuit back in the late’70s.

“A long time ago,” Bryce recalls, “I was Artistic Director of the Overground Theatre, which for a brief and brilliant few years was one of London’s leading fringe theatres. We transferred some shows to the West End, to BBC TV, to BBC Radio and to commercial success elsewhere. It was a very exciting time for a young guy in his twenties.”

At that time, Anthony Shaffer’s play “Sleuth” had been enjoying phenomenal success, and Shaffer followed with another play called “Murderer.” Bryce says the follow up to a successful play is “the most difficult play of all to write – my point being that after you have had a major commercial hit with your first play the next play is the tough one, because everyone will compare it unfavorably with the play that made your name.”

“Murderer” was a conventional stage thriller with one unusual twist: in the first 35 minutes there is no dialogue. Instead, there is 35 minutes of Grand Guignol humor. That’s a style of theater popular in Paris in the Belle Époque – the same period that produced “A Flea in Her Ear,” which Centerstage recently performed. Grand Guignol focuses on the macabre; it is not funny.

In Shaffer’s play, the protagonist is an artist who slips his attractive female model a Mickey Finn. She passes out; he strips her naked and carries her up to the bath – “and then proceeds to extract a lot of comedy (would you believe?) by dismembering her.

“Well, the West End Producer thought the old ladies wouldn’t be able to take the dismembering. So all that was cut. There was not much to the rest of the play, and it closed in a week. It was then revived by a small regional theatre (the now defunct Redgrave Theatre in Farnham), was treated as a melodrama...and bombed again.”

Bryce selected “Murderer” for the Overground, and they played it not as comedy but as “absolute reality.” He said it was a huge success and Shaffer was overjoyed.

Bryce was inspired by “Murderer,” both on a commercial and artistic level. He said he “saw what sold” and set himself the task of writing something that would be popular. “I had always felt that stage thrillers never addressed the real world. Whether it was Agatha Christie and her high society types or the assortment of artists, playwrights and theatrical caricatures that seem to populate more contemporary thrillers. I wanted to write a play with all the twists and turns of the genre, but set in a world most theatergoers could relate directly to. So I set it in the suburban world in which I grew up.”

The play was a big success in London, and film director Piers Haggard wanted to direct the play on the West End. He got his friend Oliver Reed to agree to do it, but the producer couldn’t come to terms with Reed’s agent, and the deal fell through.
Bryce calls it the play where he lost his innocence. “I thought I had it made,” he says. “Such is the reality of the business.”

Bryce recently re-read the script and thought it was “pretty good.” He revised it extensively and presented it in an audience poll along with a number of better-known plays such as “Lost in Yonkers” and Stephen King’s “Misery,” and the audience voted for it overwhelmingly. He says he thinks it is the title they liked.

“It would be a mistake to say that ‘Nightmare’ is a Grand Guignol-style play,” Bryce says, “but it does have one element that echoes the Grand Guignol spirit.” (He would not clarify what that “one element” is, preferring to maintain some mystery.)

“Immodestly, I have to say that it was a huge hit for us in London. It ran in repertoire with the English premier of Edward Albee’s “Seascape.” It got much better reviews than the Albee and did much better business. I think Centerstage audiences have to prepare themselves for a rollercoaster ride of twists and turns where you can never be certain what will happen next. And plenty of laughs. I like to describe it thus: It’s not a whodunit. It’s a WHOWILLDOWOT?”

“Nightmare of a Married Man” opens Feb. 29 and runs through March 16.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 29-March 16
WHERE: Knutzen Family Theater, 3200 SW Dash Point Rd., Federal Way
TICKETS: $8 to $25 depending on age
INFORMATION: 253-661-1444,

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