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Paulanne Simmons

"Freak Winds" Is Funny and Frightening

"Freak Winds"

"Freak Winds"
Directed by Marshall Napier
Presented by Hair of the Dog LLC
Arclight Theatre
152 West 71st St., between Broadway and Columbus
Opened March 17, 2006
Mon., Wed.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m., Sat. matinee 3 p.m.
$25 (212) 352-3101 or www.theatermania.com
Closes April 22, 2006
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons March 24, 2006

Jeremy Chernick has crafted a set for "Freak Winds" that seems to say it all. He's turned the stage of Arclight Theatre into a comfortable living room furnished with a leather couch, an overflowing bookcase and a worn area rug--the perfect setting for an Agatha Christie type cozy mystery.

When the house lights go out and the theater is filled with the ominous sounds of a raging storm, it's clinched: Marshall Napier's drama is going to be about a murder committed by an evil but amiable eccentric who is eventually brought to justice through the ratiocination of an amateur sleuth.

Even when the first two characters to appear speak with a decidedly Australian accent, there doesn't seem to be much call for alarm. Freak Winds, one reasons, will merely be an English mystery transported to the antipodes. Then the plot unfolds, and it becomes apparent that this gut-wrenching thriller, this hilarious parody, this perverted theatrical production is something very different indeed.

The two characters are Henry Crumb (Damian de Montemas), a nervous, hyper-talkative insurance agent who has come to this house to sell a policy and stays because a tree falls on his Mercedes; and Ernest (Marshall Napier), an awkward, literal-minded middle-aged loner who has weird habits, like collecting a scrapbook of heinous crimes, particularly those perpetrated on innocent young girls; rushing into the bathroom to throw up; and sharpening his knives in the kitchen.

The suspense and anxiety augments when Ernest and Henry Crumb are joined by the third character in the play, Myra (the sweetly surreal Tamara Lovatt-Smith), who rolls into the living room on her wheelchair and proceeds to seduce Henry in a way that is strangely insouciant and aggressive.

As the evening goes on, Ernest and Myra's relationship becomes increasingly bizarre and unclear, and their intentions for Henry are more and more perverted and frightening, until the spine-tingling but not unexpected conclusion.

Napier, who also directs, never lets the tension abate. The very air in the theater seems to vibrate. De Montemas keeps Henry just crazy enough to make the audience wonder whether everything that is happening to him might not be in his own mind. And Napier makes Ernest into the kind of creep that inhabits most people's most frightening nightmares.

The horror is only relieved by the ridiculous. Myra declares her love from her wheelchair. Ernest insists on dancing with Henry because that is the one thing Myra can't do.

Freak Winds is the kind of story that makes Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" read like the goings-on at a Girl Scout camp. Certainly this play is not for everyone. But for those who have a mind that runs to the macabre and a sense of humor that's a touch depraved, Freak Winds will have an irresistible charm. In fact, the thriller has been staged twice at the Old Fitzroy Hotel in Sydney (1999 and 2000) and at the Herald Theater in Auckland, New Zealand (2005), always to sell-out houses, filled with many people who have seen the play more than once.

Very often when the playwright directs and acts in his own work, the play goes astray. In this case nothing could be further from the truth. This ship is airtight. And despite the howling winds that that propels it, keeps on floating until it reaches home port.

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