A Mystery Drama Trapped in Gimmicks


SOLITARY CONFINEMENT. Play by Rupert Holmes. Starring Stacy Keach. Supervised by Marshall W. Mason, based on the original direction by Kenneth Frankel. At the Nederlander Theatre.

WHEN playwright Rupert Holmes made his Broadway debut with the musical "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," he gave the audience the privilege of choosing one of several different solutions for the mystery. Since then, he has not been as generous. In both his last play, the Broadway flop "Accomplice," and his newest play, "Solitary Confinement," which recently opened on Broadway after successful engagements in Pasadena, Calif., San Diego, and Washington, he continually delights in undercutting audience expectat ions. This is an essential component of the thriller genre, but Mr. Holmes carries it to such extremes that we end up feeling less exhilarated than cheated.

This was precisely the problem with "Accomplice," which became a series of absurd premises demonstrating cleverness for its own sake. "Solitary Confinement," which stars Stacy Keach (a veteran of stage mysteries, having starred in "Deathtrap" on Broadway, "Sleuth" on tour, and "Wait Until Dark" on HBO), is a more satisfying whole, but it is no less gimmicky.

Holmes is clearly eager to create a mystery classic on the order of "Sleuth" or "Deathtrap," but he cares more about form than content. Those plays had vivid situations and characters; "Solitary Confinement" has as its sole on-stage character an annoying cipher whose life-and-death struggle we care little about.

Keach stars as Richard Jannings, a billionaire industrialist ensconced in his high-tech penthouse, communicating with his employees only through elaborate video hookups. He treats them all with a mixture of condescension and arrogant contempt; he even fires his elderly security guard. Jannings is setting himself up for a fall, and halfway though the first act it comes, as his accountant makes him the prisoner of his own devices and introduces an intruder to kill him and eventually impersonate him.

Discussing much more of the plot would ruin whatever fun the play provides. Suffice it to say that a cat-and-mouse game ensues in which Jannings, seemingly dead, attempts to turn the tables on his pursuers. The second half of the play is a series of riddles that both the attacker and the audience are invited to solve. The proceedings are enlivened considerably by William Barclay's ingenious set design, which involves elaborate props and special effects. Indeed, the play is so dependent on them, that a ma lfunctioning prop would probably shut the performance down.

STACY KEACH works hard, even managing to display his talents in such areas as lipsyncing, soft shoe, and golf-putting. Curiously, in the scenes where he interacts with his own image on a video monitor, his filmed performance is more compelling than his live one. But it is an energetic and witty star turn that shows he has been away from the New York stage far too long.

What is perhaps the biggest surprise of the evening is saved for last and will likely send you home chuckling. But for all its inventiveness, "Solitary Confinement" is a bag of tricks that ultimately turns up empty.

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