SNAKE IN THE GRASS

at the Matrix Theatre

Yes, some of us consider playwright Alan Ayckbourn our favorite guilty pleasure. He is a superb craftsman, although his plays may never change the course of humanity or push theatrical envelopes. We usually, however, think of him as a comic genius. So throughout much of this production, we're poised for the big laughs. They don't come, which is not to say there is no humor in either the script or Mark Roseblatt's direction of this U.S. premiere. And that's because the work is a thriller—one that has us squealing in our seats as noises startle us, plot twists leap out at us. It's probable that Roseblatt doesn't want us to initially realize this is a thriller, so the clues are subtle, the whole played as a family drama until near its end.

And how deliciously plotted it is. The long-absent Annabel returns to her childhood home after her father's death, reuniting with her younger sister, Miriam, who had been caregiver to the abusive dad. The previously dismissed caregiver, Alice, also arrives at the house, threatening to reveal what she knows about the causes of his death. Familial jealousies, a heart condition, an abandoned well, and a penchant for murder help unearth ghosts of all colors in deliciously expected and unexpected ways.

And how well-acted it is. The three women are highly skilled, and Roseblatt ensures a unity of style here. Pamela Salem beautifully crafts a dignified, puzzled, fearful Annabel. Claire Jacobs plays the possibly ditsy Miriam with great care, doling out just enough clues as the play unfolds. Nicola Bertram is chilling in a well-calibrated performance as Alice; what the actor must physically undergo is worthy of combat pay.

Also greatly helping to create the thriller ambiance are Laura Fine Hawkes' expansive, detailed, sturdy set; Leigh Allen's creeps-inducing lighting that creates darkness without shutting the audience out of the action; and Eric Snodgrass' highly effective sound design that offers its own clues to the proceedings.

Presented by the Salem K Theatre Company at the Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave., L.A. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. Apr. 4-May 4. (323) 960-4420. www.salemtheatreco.org.

Reviewed by Dany Margolies