Cold Kill, a new play by North Carolina native Terry Roueche, is currently enjoying a workshop production under the auspices of the New World Stage PlayFactory (at 8 p.m. March 4-6 at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro, NC). Cold Kill contains strong characterization and some finely observed dialogue. Its plot and motivations, however, are Movie of the Week by way of second-hand Agatha Christie.
Consider: Two couples. The first (Stephen and Laura) is married; the second (Paul and Julie) is not. A Western cabin "in a very remote location," some two-days' hike through blizzard-like conditions. Stephen — canny, suspicious, intellectual, occasionally violent — is the control freak upon whose survival skills the others depend. Laura and Paul are in the midst of a potentially marriage-busting affair. Julie, the fish out of water, doesn't know but becomes increasingly unsettled. What might she do if she knows for certain? Did Stephen, a professor, know his former student Julie better than either lets on? Does Stephen suspect Laura's involvement with Paul? Can you see where this is leading?
As it turns out, toward a climax as ambiguously inconclusive as it is expected. That sounds contradictory I know, but to say more would be to risk spoiling what little Cold Kill has to offer in the way of action or logic.
Roueche has a keen ear for dramatic dialogue and an almost Pinteresque appreciation for what lies beneath silences. Stephen, for example, notes that he appreciates a woman who takes chances, "as long as she's willing to accept the consequences," that "there should be a price for everything." In the context, such lines attain a queasy, metaphorical threat of unwelcome knowledge and vengeful intent. But the situation is so thin, the complications so pat, and the conclusion so foregone that no amount of verbal dexterity, however rich, can salvage the play's essential aura of cliché.
Scott Pardue's direction of the piece is intimate to a fault. You may feel you're watching the confined action unfold in a living room — one with exceptionally uncomfortable chairs. The actors, with the notable exception of the always-interesting Flynt Burton, tend either to project to a non-existent back row or, in their softer moments, to mumble incoherently, complicated further by staging that places a performer's back to his audience at precisely such moments. Matters are scarcely helped by the inter-scene musical cues, which consist of either white noise or a few portentous Jocelyn Pook-ish piano chords, nor by a prominent wall-clock that vies with the play for the audience's attention, and often wins. Further deficits include Jon Harper's curiously obtuse lighting effects and imported French wine in a screw-top bottle. I recognize that this is not a fully realized production, and that workshops are necessarily minimal. But when the audience is seated two feet away from the actors, a child's plastic hunting-knife resembles nothing so much as a child's plastic hunting-knife.
A playwright's intent is not always clear from a theatre company's representation. The PlayFactory did, I believe, great disservice to Ann Marie Oliva's very promising Alice Neel last spring, so some of the faults I observed here may well lie at the feet not of the dramatist but those of his caretakers. Still, Alice Neel held out riches that transcended the limitations placed upon it. It's difficult to believe that Cold Kill would be any less hypothermic in other hands.
The New World Stage PlayFactory presents Cold Kill Thursday-Saturday, March 4-6, at 8 p.m. at The ArtsCenter, 300-G E. Main St., Carrboro, North Carolina. $10 ($8 ArtsCenter Friends). 800/514-3849 or 919/929-ARTS. http://www.newworldstage.org/productions/playfactory/2003/cold_kill/cc_pr.htm [inactive 4/04].