Laura Odeh is one of those actors who is always smiling. Not in the plastered-on, put-upon manner synonymous with WASPish forbearance — you're more likely to find her grin in a furrow or twinkle — but it's there nonetheless. Resembling a young Annette Bening in both appearance and affect, the ever-beaming Odeh finds mystery in melancholy, mischief in the mundane. This sort of radiant talent, squandered in the Public Theater's recent, arid King Lear, is fully utilized in Irish Rep's glowing revival of Gaslight, where Odeh and her uniformly expert co-stars make a slightly soggy piece of kindling positively crackle.
Produced on Broadway in 1941 under the title Angel Street, Gaslight has been frequently adapted for the screen, most notably in a 1944 version that brought Ingrid Bergman an Oscar in the role Odeh now plays. Gaslight's appeal to filmmakers is understandable: Playwright Patrick Hamilton creates chillingly claustrophobic melodrama out of the tale of a young wife (Odeh) who may be losing her mind and the older husband (David Staller) who may be taking it from her.
Though such material cries out for caressing close-ups, director Charlotte Moore compensates by ratcheting up the performances to larger than life but still thankfully short of smothering. She is assisted in her efforts by James Morgan's lush drawing-room set and Martha Hally's luxurious, excellent costumes.
And, of course, Moore has at her disposal the incomparable Brian Murray, here redeeming what could easily be a thankless role: the police inspector who may or may not be real. Meant largely to goose the plot forward, in Murray's hands the inspector becomes an unexpected source of compassion and comedy — and even courage, which he doles out in liquid form.
Staller rounds out the leads, distinctive in a role previously tackled by Charles Boyer (on film) and Vincent Price (on stage). True, Staller leaves little doubt from the start that his character is a villain — but, oh, what a villain he is. A dry, deliciously disquieting sadist, he suggests Noël Coward by way of David Lynch.
Only when a patron's cell phone rang out rudely and insistently during the second act of the preview I attended did Gaslight appear a bit creaky, its surprises played too early, its plot stretched thin across two hours and 15 minutes. At a more decorous performance, I suspect such quibbles won't arise amidst the spellbinding acting — beginning with Odeh's natural luminosity.
Presented by and at the Irish Repertory Theatre,
132 W. 22nd St., NYC.
May 17-July 8. Tue.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat., and Sun., 3 p.m.
(212) 727-2737 or www.irishrep.org.