By Kevin Zimmerman
When examining what makes a good mystery story, the discussion invariably turns to the element of surprise.
Whether it becomes clear the narrator cannot be trusted or the most obvious suspect ends up dead in the penultimate chapter, you do not want to see the ending coming before you reach the half-way mark.
Lucille Fletcher’s play “Night Watch,” now being produced by Theatre Time Productions in Bayside, succeeds in offering an ending which — except for maybe the most hardcore mystery expert — leaves the audience gasping in surprise.
Set in a Kip’s Bay townhouse during the bad-old days of pre-Giuliani New York, the story centers around insomniac Elaine Wheeler, who in the wee hours of the morning believes she witnesses two murders in the building directly behind her home.
As she lets forth with a blood-curdling scream, her husband, John; the housekeeper, Helga; and her best friend, Blanche, who just happens to be her nurse, come running into the living room to find out what is going on. The police are summoned and the nosy next-door neighbor, Curtis Appleby, the publisher of the local newspaper, also works his way in.
The trouble is no one seems to believe Elaine because of her past mental instability caused by the death of her first husband.
As Elaine, actress Mary Lynch commands your attention as she teeters between outright hysteria and anger over being dismissed by the others.
It’s a tough role, Lynch is on stage for nearly the entire production, but she pulls it off quite nicely. Just when you fear she may be lapsing into a cartoon version of a crazy lady, she brings herself back under control, but never loses the uneasy feeling she displays throughout.
Stephanie Lenna also shines as Blanche, who appears to be a caring friend, but is clearly hiding something.
And it doesn’t really take much guessing to figure out just what Blanche and John, played by Frank Freeman, are trying to keep from Elaine.
The fact that the two are carrying on an affair isn’t a surprise by the time they steal a kiss midway through the proceedings.
So now you are left wondering are John and Blanche trying to drive Elaine crazy and cart her off to a clinic in Switzerland? (And why is every clinic in a work of fiction from about 1960 to 1980 located in Switzerland? Does the high altitude help moods?)
Or is there something else going on?
Fletcher — best known as the author of the Barbara Stanwyck thriller “Sorry, Wrong Number” — creates a terrific ending tacked on to an average script. There are plenty of cliches sprinkled throughout, including the cop with a thick Brooklyn accent and a German housekeeper who does not trust the master; not to mention the Playwriting 101 move known as Chekov’s gun — if you show a pistol in Act 1, it must go off in Act 2.
Despite all this, the cast is pretty much able to deliver performances that rise above the weaknesses in the script.
Cecilia Vaicels as Helga and Jim Haines as Mr. Appleby provide plenty of genuine laughs as the two comic foils. Haines in particular is able to take his one-dimensional character and create a real person — albeit a slightly off-kilter one — who seems just like the many odd characters one finds in Manhattan.
But the show definitely belongs to Lynch and her Elaine, as she keeps you guessing and unsure of yourself right up to the final blackout.
If you go
Theatre Time Productions
When: Through Oct. 26, Friday – Saturday at 8 pm, Sunday at 3 pm
Where: Colonial Church of Bayside, 54-02 217th St.
Cost: $18/general admission, $16/seniors and students
Contact: (347) 358-8102