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FACE TO FACE: John Pielmeier

Is the Thriller a Voice in the Dark?

In an attempt to gauge audience response to "Voices in the Dark," a thriller that bowed on Broadway at the Longacre Theatre, Aug 10, ushers were handing out questionnaires to theatregoers at a preview performance.

Playwright John Pielmeier does not think the survey indicates behind-the-scene reservations. Indeed, the 50ish, Altoona, Pa., native stresses, "I haven't even seen them. We don't get feedback on the results. They're about market research, advertising."

Still, he underscores that the thriller genre is tricky, and that one of the major challenges the creative team faces is to keep the audiences coming despite critics' reactions, which oftentimes are not kind. (Ben Brantley's New York Times review of "Voices," as a case in point, was downright harsh.)

"For whatever reasons, critics don't understand the unique world of the thriller. They tend to approach it from an intellectual perspective and they shouldn't," asserts Pielmeier, best known for his successful play and movie "Agnes of God." "That's not to say a thriller shouldn't be smart and clever. But the thriller is gut-driven, gut-motivated," he emphasizes. "It's like a roller-coaster ride, and if they get on the ride hoping to respond on a cerebral level, they probably won't like it."

"Voices" centers on a radio psychologist-a kinder, gentler Dr. Laura prototype, doling out advice to the abused and lovelorn-who is suddenly the victim of a menacing caller who threatens to kill her. Later, the doctor (played by Judith Ivey) is alone in her isolated country home, lined in fully exposed floor-to-ceiling glass windows. It is night; it is snowing. A handful of seemingly innocuous visitors drop by briefly-any one of whom may be the would-be killer. The frightening calls escalate, suspense builds. Well, you get the idea.

The straightforward, yet paradoxically guarded Pielmeier, with whom we meet in a theatre dressing room before a performance, concedes that "Voices" is awash in nods-"homage, not parody," he insists-to the genre's icons. Among these: "Wait Until Dark," "Angel Street," "Death Trap," "Dial M for Murder," and, to a lesser extent, "Sleuth."

"Voices" has a 1990s spin. Yet all of these plays share common ground, Pielmeier suggests. "The thriller is a narrow category that is mystery based. It's a who-done-it, why-done-it, and how-done-it. And always has been. It's a play that metaphorically and literally keeps you on the edge of your seat. It poses as naturalism, but can never be mistaken for it. You can't really believe that what you're seeing is real; but within its own world-not unlike a fairy tale or musical that works on some subconscious level-it must be believable."

What makes "Voices" contemporary is both its tone and subject, he stresses. For starters, there's the central character-the radio call-in talk-show psychologist. But, more important, "Voices" looks at the hot questions surrounding violence in the media. Is violence a springboard for therapy or is it entertainment? Interestingly, while commenting on violence, the play is at the same time displaying its own fair share of it.

"Although nothing violent is visible onstage [a stabbing occurs behind a counter], the play is certainly more gruesome-and psychologically edgy-than anything that was done in the '60s or '70s," Pielmeier points out. "We talk openly and graphically about child abuse."

The thriller form carries its own demands. "It is one of the few art forms where the writer works backwards and then fills in the blanks. I had the final image in my mind before I wrote it," he notes. "The thriller is about end results-the big ones and the little ones along the way. The challenge is, how do I get from here to there logically, seamlessly, and inevitably?

"And you need those scream moments-usually meaning someone or something pops out unexpectedly or expectedly. [There's plenty of that in "Voices."] Writing a thriller is walking a thin line. You can't fall into camp."

Pielmeier acknowledges that the theatre thriller is an endangered species, mostly because the movie has replaced it. "It's easier to be scared in a movie because it works on a more naturalistic level. In some ways, it's less artificial than a play. Despite the theatre's artifice, however, the theatre offers the immediate visceral moment-to-moment experience that films do not."

Thinking Like an Actor

The son of a grocer-butcher, Pielmeier grew up wanting to be an actor. He majored in drama at Washington, D.C.'s Catholic University and then Penn State; following graduation he acted in regional theatres for four years. He was not especially happy as a performer, he recalls, and began to turn his attention to writing.

But his stint as an actor was no loss. "To this day, I approach writing from the actor's point of view-meaning that [besides writing speakable dialogue] I track the character's emotional logic."

During his 25-plus-year career, Pielmeier has penned more than 15 plays, films, and teleplays. Recent projects include "Flowers for Algernon"-a remake of "Charlie" (based on the book, "Flowers for Algernon"), originally starring Cliff Robertson-and "The Happy Face Murders." The former will be aired on CBS in November. The latter, based on a series of murders in the Northwest, will be produced by Showtime on Sept. 5.

Starring Ann Margaret, " "The Happy Face Murders' describes the Fargoesque paths the detectives took to catch the perpetrators," Pielmeier says. ("Fargoesque" refers to the quirky tone of the movie "Fargo," 1996.)

Clearly the career turning point for Pielmeier was "Agnes of God," a project that was born in response to a self-imposed challenge. "I wanted to write a play that would focus on three characters-three female characters-on a bare stage. The big challenge was writing about women." He adds that each of his plays, within parameters, grows out of a pre-conceived task.

He cites J.M. Barry and Thornton Wilder as his esthetic mentors and suggests that the themes that most interest him are "corruption of innocence and troubled parent-child relationships." Emotionally speaking, his plays frequently put his characters "on the edge of a cliff," he remarks.

Clearly, that edge-of-the-cliff sensibility is what defines a thriller in Pielmeier's view. It is a genre that requires a director and a lead who have a particular temperament and set of skills.

"Like the director of any modern drama, the director of a thriller must understand character and motivation," Pielmeier says. "On top of that, he must have a good sense of why and how a coffee cup is put down at a special time and place, for example. And it [putting his cup down] has to be justified in a believable way. In a play like "Hedda Gabler' it doesn't really matter when and where a cup is put down. In a thriller, the timing and placement of an object can be the key. And a director must enjoy adhering to the form's rigidity." (Christopher Ashley helms "Voices.")

"The same is true for the lead actor," Pielmeier continues. "In addition, it helps if he [in this case, she] has good timing, equivalent to a comic's timing. The lead in a thriller should be turned on by the idea that if he puts a cup down at a certain time and place, 20 minutes down the line, there'll be a payoff."

Pielmeier speculates that the theatrical thriller will never die, although he doesn't anticipate an outpouring in the genre. Nevertheless, he expects: "At some point in the future, someone will come along who has a brand-new take on the thriller. Instead of using the naturalistic, one-set classic form that I do, he'll break away from all of it and create something totally new."

Interactive thriller, perhaps?

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