Emlyn Williams’s 1935 hit Night Must Fall has not aged well. If one human year equals seven in a dog, it would seem to correspond to a dozen in a boulevard play. This is a thriller that cheekily defies the ground rule of keeping you in suspense about who did it. Instead, it tries to tickle you with just why and just how. But the psychology feels dated, the construction is creaky, and one cannot care about the characters. So why was it a big hit then? Ask yourself rather why so many cheesy musicals are big hits now.
The director, John Tillinger, has added a brief prologue that is so chillingly effective that it minimizes the shock value of the rest. As the mean old lady in whose country home the action takes place, the worthy Judy Parfitt somehow seems neither old nor helpless enough. Matthew Broderick, however, does the psychopathic killer with aplomb, even if his accent is somewhat bizarre. J. Smith-Cameron has the most difficult role of the neurotic niece who first suspects and loathes, then falls for and shields, the killer. She does it very professionally, but without special distinction. In the adequate supporting cast, Patricia Kilgariff, as the comic cook, stands out.
James Noone’s Tudor house is flavorously designed, and Jess Goldstein’s costumes are properly subdued. But, as so often, it is Brian MacDevitt’s lighting that scores highest, with one of the best thunderstorms I have ever seen on- or offstage. Tillinger has also made another pointless change or two but otherwise keeps things moving smoothly and efficiently. Yet the National Actors Theater, which has all our rich theatrical past to choose from, could have picked something not in need of so much artificial respiration.