“Veronica’s Room Is Found Empty,” by Clive Barnes (26 October 1973)
There was deception, foul language, nudity, incest, necrophilia and murder at the Music Box Theater last night. And that was just onstage. The play was Ira Levin’s Veronica’s Room.
A note in the program suggests that: “For the enjoyment of future audiences, it will be appreciated if you do not disclose the plot of the play.” Their secret will be safe with me. There were times when it looked pretty much safe with the playwright.
The difficulty with any suspense thriller is how to escape out of the end of the tunnel. How do you provide that final clinching surprise that will have the audience leave gasping but happy? Mr. Levin has quite a good idea —and now I have to tread delicately, for I must discuss something of it without disclosing it.
A girl (Susan) is lured into a room. She has found a boyfriend. They meet a couple in a restaurant and are taken back to a house. Susan is said to look like another girl, Veronica, who is dead. She is persuaded to pretend to be Veronica. She wears Veronica’s dress. She is in Veronica’s room. A door is locked. She beats on it. She cries. But in suspense thrillers, nothing good comes out of a locked door.
As in Pirandello’s Henry IV, although I am sure Mr. Levin would be the first to admit that he does not play games in Pirandello’s ballpark, there is a confusion of time here. Are we in 1973 or 1935?
Susan is in 1973, and she has the names and the memories to prove it. In a moment of torment she can shout a litany of names such as Henry Kissinger’s. And in 1935 who apart from his parents had heard of Henry Kissinger? But despite this, despite even her knowledge of advanced radio technology, despite her very certainty of existence, there are those who think that she is mad. Not only mad but also guilty of such horrid crimes that “even angels could not forgive.”
The play is strong on atmosphere and totally weak in reality. It shouts a lot but means little. Here is a family that makes the Addams Family look as though it would be fun neighbors, and yet its melodramatic extravagances are never really funny, thrilling nor convincing.
I found myself thinking of the black‐red horrors of Webster’s and Tourneur’s Jacobean tragedies. There, extravagance took on a certain poetic exuberance, and nothing seemed too farfetched because it was always fetched with feeling. Here the fetching, like the writing, is mechanical.
The overheated and gothic tensions of the play are matched by Ellis Rabb’s startled style of staging—with everyone freezing into groups at a second’s excuse, and exchanging meaningful glances whenever possible. Yet it is difficult to see how it could be done otherwise (the play is no more naturalistic than it is realistic) and he has found admirable and familiar collaborators in Douglas Schmidt (scenery), Nancy Potts (costumes) and John Gleason (lighting). Veronica’s Room simply could not look more right.
The acting also had a full‐blooded expertise. As Susan or Veronica, Regina Baff was most impressive. She beat against fate like a spunky little sparrow, and her mixture of frenzy, and reason was nicely judged. Eileen Heckert and Arthur Kennedy are every polished as her friends and tormentors.
Miss Heckert is malicious in her modulation, throwing away asides with acidulated panache, and Mr. Kennedy, more bluff and blustering, provides her with a subtle contrast: Kipp Osborne as the young man in Susan’s life, perhaps goes too far at the end. But then so did the young man.
These things are usually more fun in the movies. One can see it with Vincent Price or Peter Cushing and all manner of berserk and naked ingenues. But for tile stage, not really. It has the merit of brevity. It looks as if it had been cut to the quick. At 1 moment Susan cries out: “My God you are very. sick people, you need help very badly.” She said it.