Problems haunt 'Woman in Black' chiefly, an absence of suspense



First, a confession. When it comes to ghost stories, I'm a pushover. Tell me a show is a ghost story, turn out the house lights, and, well, let's just say I'm easy to scare. But not as easy as you'd have to be to get the heebie-jeebies from Stephen Mallatratt's slow-moving, predictable "The Woman in Black," making its American premiere at Olney Theatre.

Adapted from a novel by Susan Hill, "The Woman in Black" appears to have an entertaining, highly theatrical premise. An aging attorney named Arthur Kipps hires an actor to coach him in the delivery of a horrid story from his past, which he plans to present to his family and friends.

The actor -- played by Leland Orser with lots of enthusiasm, a touch of attitude and a wavering British accent -- convinces Kipps the story would be more effective if it were acted out. However, because the attorney has little acting ability, the actor agrees to portray him. Kipps, in turn, will portray all of the other characters. The production's most amusing conceit is making us think that talented Tony Rizzoli, who plays Kipps, can't act, a judgment rapidly expunged by his colorful renditions of the various secondary roles.

Director Bill Graham Jr. has some fun with the play-within-a-play format. The actors make numerous entrances and exits from the aisles, all the while referring to those of us in the audience as if we were so many empty seats at a rehearsal. But Mr. Graham also tends to let the actors remain motionless and declaim, which is little better than Kipps' sorry attempts before being coached.

More seriously, the self-referential theatrical elements, even at their cleverest, interrupt Kipps' ghost story; they're as distracting as commercials, preventing us from becoming involved, much less scared.

Kipps' saga progresses with fewer breaks in the second act, but it turns out to be full of holes. As a young attorney, Kipps visited a remote village in northern England to sort out the papers of a recently deceased widow. Needless to say, the widow had lived in a haunted house.

As the tale is enacted, Kipps loses his nerve, not to mention his flashlight, following a few ghostly visitations. (Don't ask why he doesn't simply turn on the lights, which he's already informed us are in working order.)

The most troublesome plothole strikes at the very heart of the play. Kipps claims he is dramatizing his gruesome past so his friends and family will know how he's suffered. But his story turns out to be so central to his family history that, even if his relatives don't know the details, they're surely aware of the outcome.

Incidentally, there's also a final twist concerning the actor, but it's set up so obviously in the first half, it doesn't twist, it merely works out as expected. "The Woman in Black" is more tame than terrible, but in a way that's worse. After all, what's a good ghost story, if not "full of terror"?

"The Woman in Black" at Olney Theatre through Oct. 21. Call (301) 924-3400.

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