DANGEROUS CORNER (1997)
Return to the list of Past Productions

DANGEROUS CORNER
written by J.B. PRIESTLY
directed by ANDREW J. ROBINSON

starring
Julia Campbell and Anna Gunn as "Betty Whitehouse"
David Dukes and Granville Van Dusen as "Robert Chatfield"
Lynnda Ferguson and Marilyn McIntyre as "Olwen Peel"
Gregory Itzin and Lawrence Pressman as "Charles Stanton"
Jay Karnes and Raphael Sbarge as "Gordon Whitehouse"
Claudette Nevins and Susan Sullivan as "Freda Chatfield"
Claudette Sutherland and Kitty Swink as "Maud Mockridge"
 
Rachel Robinson
- Standby, "Betty Whitehouse"


REVIEWS:

Variety, Friday, May 30, 1997
by Charles Isherwood

There's no onstage rainstorm, and no Victorian tollhouse tipping hack and forth like a Disneyland attraction, spewing china toward the footlights, but the Matrix Theatre Company's production of J.B. Priestley's "Dangerous Corner" is a lively entertainment nonetheless. With Priestley's "An Inspector Calls" - and the aforementioned special effects — proving a surprise smash in London and on Broadway, this is a canny choice for one of L.A.'s premier small companies, though it shows its age more than "Inspector" did.

A 1932 mystery melodrama that hews more closely to the traditions of those genres than the 1946 "Inspector," which had a thicker overlay of social import, "Dangerous Corner" concerns the death of a principal in a publishing house, Martin Chatfield, and the reverberations from his apparent suicide among his family and business associates a year later.

Assembled after dinner on the patio of a cozy country home, handsomely created by Deborah Raymond and Dorian Vernacchio, are Robert Chat field (Granville Van Dusen), Martin's brother and the head of the firm; his wife Freda (Claudlette Nevins); her brother Gordon (Raphael Sbarge), also in the firm; and his glamorous, flighty wife Betty (Anna Gunn); the firm's other partner, Charles Stanton (Lawrence Pressman); and Olwen Peel (Marilyn Mclntyre), loyal secretary at the company.

The play's mustiness comes through early, in the characterization of the late Marlin: After hearing him described as "handsome, charming and so amusing," no prizes for guessing what Martin's big secret was. But in fact everyone onstage has a secret relating to Martin's untimely death, which took place just as a scandal involving money stolen from the firm threatened to unfold.

And as the evening progresses, one by one these genteel folk are forced to confront the harsh, sordid truths beneath the illusions they live by — rather as in "Inspector Calls," truth be told. The play's title is taken from a line of dialogue likening truth-telling to speeding around a perilous curve.

It's all rather formulaic: Each character gets his or her moment of mortification as a secret is revealed, and someone is forever saying "Yes, it's true!" with varying degrees of defiance or shame. If the Matrix cast under Andrew J. Robinson's pacy direction can't quite make it seem fresh, they certainly make this theatrically conventional play sparkle with wit and suffused emotion.

Itzin's Gordon is lull of sly, wry cynicism. "Isn't it terrible?" he deadpans sarcastically when his guilt is discovered. He plays best against the conventions of the material. Mclntyre's deliciously named Olwen Peel is mousiness incarnate, with a permanent look of wounded pride.

As the self-satisfied Freda, Nevins has an air of regality being quietly shaken to its roots, and Gunn comes through in the second act with some shiny steel beneath the gloss of the glamorous figure she cuts in the first.

With only the occasional bootable line (Olwen shudders at the recollection of Martin showing her "those beastly, foul drawings of a mad, Belgian artist..."). "Dangerous Corner" still provides the kind of theatrical flair that audiences once took for granted, and in the Matrix company's capable hands, it's an old-fashioned pleasure.
 

BackStage West - CRITIC'S PICK
by Zach Udko

"Life has a lot of dangerous corners, if you don't chose your route well," says one of J.B. Priestley's two-faced characters in his intriguing and fascinating mystery Dangerous Comer. Under Andrew J. Robinsons adroit direction, the Matrix Theatre Company coasts smoothly through this exceptional play without even the slightest pothole or skid mark. The result is a production that makes it clear why the Matrix may be the best theatre company in town.

As we saw last year in Stephen Daltlry's glorious production of An Inspector Calls al the Ahmanson Theatre, Priestley had a knack for creating characters with enormous complexities and well-constructed facades. Small talk soon turns into a fierce search for the truth, as a group of publishers and their wives begin to find out what happened to one of the partners on the fateful night of his death. No statement goes unexamined, or uncross-examined, by this determinedly "charming little group" as pieces are put together in one great puzzle.

As always at the Matrix, at least two actors portray each role; the performers are mixed and matched for each performance to create a new experience each night. On the night reviewed, each of the seven members of the ensemble were in top form. Most notable were Marilyn Mclntyre's portrayal of a distraught secretary and Granville Van Dusen's exceptional take on the dogged, heavy-drinking publishing boss. Lawrence Pressman brings a sardonic twist to his no-nonsense character, and as the boss' doting wile, Susan Sullivan skillfully demonstrates her character's need to maintain order and civility.

Robinsons direction even manages to accentuate some of the more humorous elements of the ridiculous sequence of events, while maintaining a fast-paced, suspenseful tempo throughout the show. There's not a dull moment in the production's 90-minute roller coaster ride.

Kudos go to an expert design team, namely Deborah Raymond and Dorian Vernacchio for an exquisite set, J. Kent Inasy for an effective lighting design, and Naomi Yoshida Rodriguez for picture-perfect costumes.
 

New Times

"To Tell the Truth"
Dangerous Corner is a British play with a distinct, delightful American accent

by Edmund Newton

A gathering of rich Americans is a little different from a gathering of comfortably well-to-do English people. While the peculiar Brits tend to be unabashedly rich (they've been doing it for so long), we colonials are usually wealthy with an explanation. There are many styles of loaded, of course, but Americans are often either crassly self-absorbed in their wealth—the famous nouveau riche—or just neurotic about it. The Poor Little Rich Girl is strictly an American phenomenon. This is the tight divide that director Andrew J. Robinson unwittingly wriggles into in his richly stylish staging of J.B. Priestley's 1932 play Dangerous Corner, now at the Matrix Theatre. Here's a British play with an American cast: So do you let the actors dust off their "I says" and "old boys," pretending to be as English as roast beef and mint sauce, or do you just let it rip Yankee style? Robinson lets it rip—and he comes up with some interesting shadings in the process.

The story concerns a clubby little group of friends, most of them partners in a successful publishing firm, who suddenly find themselves compelled to tell the truth; they sweep away all of the disguises and half-truths that help them get over the rough spots in their complicated lives. A mysterious visiting novelist (Claudette Sutherland) somehow loosens their tongues, and one thing just seems to lead to another.

There are certainly some suppressed truths to utter here, mostly about the late Martin Chatfield, once a partner to some of the folks on the stage. Martin was a man whose personality must have been so elastic he could have extended it several times around the handsomely spacious conservatory where the group gathers (elegantly designed by Deborah Raymond and Dorian Veraacchio) and still had enough left over to hold up his pants. Depending on who's telling the story, Martin was either a dashing, sensitive, grabby pornography-lover and a lamenter who was troubled by moral dilemmas or a ruthless society warrior who was "cruel as a cat."

The play bristles with sudden shocking revelations and cliff-hanger announcements, including one hilarious disclosure about Martin's death at the end of Act One, leaving such a huge question mark that the suspense may send you rushing back to your seat before intermission ends. The cast plays it all with deadly seriousness, resisting the urge to camp it up, giving the performance an edge that's as sharp as a carving knife.

But who are these long-legged women in expensive dresses and these self-satisfied men in evening jackets? One thing they're not is Americans pretending to be the familiar English aristocrats who loll around drawing rooms; despite some awkwardly British modes of expression (such as, "Oughtn't we make sandwiches?"), all of them speak American.

By doing it that way, Robinson risks having the audience scratch its head in puzzlement here and there. Julia Campbell, as the deliciously hoity-toity Betty Whitehouse, a princess from the depths of her rapacious heart, is a little too precious, even for a rich American debutante. But most of the time, the Americanization of the play adds texture to the characters. Gregory Itzin, as the unscrupulous fellow who, it seems, has stolen some money (it's a long story), transcends Priestley's English cad to become a touchingly Lomanesque figure pursued by failure. Claudette Nevins, as a hearty society woman, finds in her part a little bit of the brassy Texas oil heiress who doesn't need servants around to mix up something tasty in a skillet.

Jay Karnes, as the spoiled rich boy who idolized Martin, makes himself a lot more interesting than some fey British dilettante, and David Dukes, as the blustery head of the firm, unsheathes a convincing element of danger and unpredictability in the part. Lynnda Ferguson is also fine as Olwen Peel, the secretary to the publishers, who brims with surprises.

Speaking of unpredictability, there are two full casts for the production, two actors for each role, and there's a different mix for every performance. On this night, the audience left savoring the experience, like diners who have just consumed a light but exquisite repast. Suspense, interesting characters, moments of high drama, surprising turns—Dangerous Corner is a pleasure from start to finish.


FEATURE ARTICLES

BackStage West

"Lynnda Ferguson & Susan Sullivan"
Reporting by Laura Hitchcock

Lynnda Ferguson and Susan Sullivan arc working together some nights in the Matrix Theatre's long-running current production ofJ .B. Priestley's "Dangerous Corner"—the show is double-cast, true to Matrix form, with two actors assigned to each role and the casts mixed and matched in different combinations each performance. (Ferguson trades off with Marilyn Mclntyre, and Sullivan with Claudette Nevins.)

Ferguson has played leading roles on stages across the country, including Neil Simons "Rumors" on Broadway, lady Anne to Stacy Keach's "Richard III" in Washington, D.C., and "Hedda Gabler" at South Coast Repertory. She worked previously at the Matrix in "Mad Forest" and "The Homecoming." TV appearances include "Almost Perfect, "News Radio," and "Picket Fences," and she stars in the upcoming feature "Raven's Blood" with her husband, John Walcott, with whom she just wrapped another film, "Making Contact."  Sullivan, a two-time Emmy nominee for "Falcon Crest," has starred in many series and miniseries, including "The Monroes," "The George Carlin Show," "Rage of Angels," "Rich Man, Poor Man," and "Midway." Her stage background began on Broadway opposite Dustin Hoffman in "Jimmy Shine," and includes productions at the Mark Taper Forum and in regional theatre. Sullivan is now also appearing in her first feature film, "My Best Friend's Wedding."

The two met recently before a performance to talk about their craft and their livelihood.

Susan Sullivan: This double-casting is the most interesting theatrical experience I have ever had. When I came into it, I said at the first read-through, "Well, there's gotta be an Alpha actor in each role—somebody who is the leader." And really there isn't. Have you had that experience?

Lynnda Ferguson: What I found, particularly in The Homecoming, and to a lesser degree in this, is that because everybody in the different roles was so different, who I was in the play was different depending on the combination of people. I mean, the domino effect of the combination of personalities is such a turn-on. I feel like I don't ever want to do it any other way.

Susan: It is fascinating. In the initial stages of the rehearsal process, I found that when I would do something on the stage, I would be really interested to see if Claudette would do die same thing. Now, of course, I know better.

Lynnda: Well, this is your first time doing this. The first time did it, in The Homecoming, the person I partnered with was more of a known quantity at the Matrix, Sharon Lawrence—she had already done several, so I felt coming into The Homecoming that I needed to shadow her more...

Susan: That's what I felt.

Lynnda: —that I needed to do more what she did. I made her like the Alpha. In fact, before we did Dangerous Corner, [producer] Joe Stem called me up and said, "OK, Lynnda, I want you to just own this. Don't be afraid to try what the other people are doing, and don't be afraid to do your own thing."

Only Reconnect

Susan: You know, for a long time, I went from one series to another, and I never had to get up and create anything for myself. I sort of forgot how to do it—or maybe I never really knew how. I decided I wanted to do a play and work in the theatre, so I pursued this myself. I had started reading plays and giving them to director Andrew J. Robinson, who happens to be my neighbor.

Lynnda: I didn't know that.

Susan: And doing this play rejuvenated my feeling about my art, and about one of the things you forget, which you discover coming back: that there is this artistic family you belong to, which nurtures you in a way that nothing else does. I didn't even know how much I missed it and how much it would mean to me to reconnect to it. For the kind of work that's gonna feed your soul, for the most part you gotta rely on yourself.

Lynnda: Absolutely To get drawn to the places where you can do exciting work for yourself requires effort. Agents and managers in Hollywood have nothing to do with that.

Susan: Ultimately, you have to create your own life as an artist. It seems to be a need thing—that you need to express this part of yourself. What was happening to me in my own life was that I was trying to push it away. I was trying to find other outlets: I started writing and painting, and all of that was fine, but it wasn't my primary form of expression; it always seemed like the poor relative that you were sort of trying to nurture along. I read a few years ago something that Frank Langella said in SAG magazine: that the saddest thing that happens to an actor is when they lose their passion. And what I was trying to do, I realized, was to kill my passion so I wouldn't have this terrible longing, as opposed to honoring the longing and trying to do something with it that would be satisfying.

Lynnda: Why would you try to kill it?

Susan: Because I didn't want to be hurt. I didn't want to be rejected. I felt abandoned by the business—because I was abandoned by the business, in a sense. I mean, I shouldn't complain, because I worked pretty consistently, but when you're used to working on a series all the time, and then suddenly you spend six months or a year not working—it was really shocking, and I felt, Well, I'm old now. I had turned 50, and in this business they tell you your career is over at 40, so at 50 I thought, Well, I'm lucky—I got an extra 10 years! I think if you buy that myth, you're really finished.

Hooked

Lynnda: It was a thrill for me when I came to the first day of Dangerous Corner rehearsals and I saw you there. Because—and this is the truth—I hardly ever watch TV, but I happened to catch the premiere of Falcon Crest, and I allowed myself to get hooked on it. I watched it. It was like my show. And I loved you in it. And I kind of thought, I want to be like her when I grow up. I did, I really did. you were always like one of my favorite actresses.

Susan: Oh, Lynnda, I'm so... please, thank you.

Lynnda: It's true, and I watched as much as I could. People thought I was crazy. "You watch what?"

Susan: I remember the day, we were not far into the rehearsal process, and you were leaving for the day, and I said, "Lynnda, I think you're a wonderful actress." Do you remember that? You looked so startled—everybody looked so startled—because actresses tend not to say that to one another. And you know what? We should say it more.
 

Drama-Logue, May 22-28, 1997

Focus on Directing:
"Andrew J. Robinson Navitages Dangerous Corner"

by Tom Provenzano

As we speak Andrew J. Robinson is in the midst of very difficult rehearsals for J. B. Priestly's Dangerous Corner at the Matrix Theatre. In addition to the usual tough problems of staging a play, he is working with a double cast.

None of these problems will slow him down. Robinson has worked steadily as an actor for 25 years — he was the bad guy in Dirty Harry and has a recurring role on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine — and between film and television roles, he's remained part of the local theatre scene. But when he began his involvement with producer Joe Stern, Robinson found himself more into directing and has turned out to be rather good at it. (Homecoming and Endgame at the Matrix received numerous Drama-Logue Awards and a Best Director Awards from The Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle.)

Drama-Logue: You have made a good living so long as an actor, why did you decide to move into directing?

Robinson: "The problems that directing poses for me in terms of my work are problems that interest me. How does one pull together all the various elements of a theatrical production in the service of a play?

"When I say, 'in service of the play,' I really mean 'of the production.' If the vision does not include everyone involved, if the vision is just some abstract idea that the director has, then he comes in and imposes upon the people and the play. Even if the vision is in tune with the play and the play can support the vision, if that vision is simply imposed, then it's pissing where you eat, because you are missing a huge opportunity to get input from them."

Drama-Logue: Do you approach each play the same way?

Robinson: "Yes, one step at a time. I go back to what I call 'first principles.' I go back to asking what the play means, what we are trying to say, what am I trying to say with the play? Where are we moment-to-moment? I worry when there is a scene where the story is not being told. That's what it comes down to: where is the story not being told?

"For me this is all about story telling. I sometimes forget that, sometimes get involved with the technical stuff or with one person's performance, so totally involved with a moment that I can't see the forest for the trees."

Drama-Logue: Before you begin rehearsals, do you have the entire play blocked in your mind or on paper?

Robinson: "No. Rehearsals are total exploration. The first week is sitting down and reading the play. Smart actors really do love to know what they are doing. They love to know what the text is about, how the text falls together, what are the themes here, what logically leads from A to B.

"Actually most actors are quite relieved to have someone who is going to sit down with them and go through it. I find that most of the actors are not anxious to get up not knowing what the hell they are saying. But ultimately you do get them up by saying, 'Now it's time to get off our asses.' That's that. There has to be some amount of leadership exercised."

Drama-Logue: Some worry that too much talk turns rehearsals into a theoretical, intellectual exercise rather than a dramatic one. Do you see a palpable difference in actors after the week of reading and discussion?

Robinson: "Yes. As I am an unrepentant English major who believes in subtext and believes that the good writers leave room for individual subtext. With good plays the surface is ambiguous enough, skillfully crafted enough, so that the actor has to come in with his or her life experience and fill it. Not only just fill it with their accidental life experience, but to fill it with conscious choices as to how they are going to go against the text. How they are going to create a counter-current to that text. So that we are not just hammering a nail on the head, so that we have a dynamic the audience feels, but can't consciously understand.

"The nail has to get a little bent. There are very few plays worth their salt where there isn't a bend in the road. And this play is called Dangerous Corner. Without that subtext you have everybody going in what I call the Swing Blade direction — you have the writer, the actor, the director all going in the same direction. If there is nothing tugging you the other way, there is no dynamic. My personal aesthetic needs to see opposition. That's my favorite kind of theatre, I hate to see things hit on the head. Otherwise, what am I doing there? What am I going to learn?"

Drama-Logue: But by allowing actors so much freedom to experiment, don't you invite ultimate conflict between you as a director and them as the creators of their character?

Robinson: "There always is. If you are asking an actor to create sub-life, to create a life underneath the text that is rich and full, then you are going 10 get into conflict with that actor. It is especially true when you are trying to give them freedom, while working on a period play. "This play is in the 1930s so we have a style here. The real fine line of this play and problem of getting it together and the success or failure of this production depends upon how well we walk the line between style and subtext without falling into one or the other. So the subtext overwhelms the style and you get into a very self-indulgent thing. Or vise versa, so you don't fall into some airy style that has no subtext.

"The 1930s is a fascinating period to work in. They had a whole different way of living in their bodies — especially in a certain strata of society. It's an English play that we've transposed to upper middle class Eastern milieu — something I know about, being a New England WASP.

"These people—especially the ones with homes in the country, who come from old money and have lived with a certain mode of behavior for generations — have a style. It is a style that does not exist in Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller. It is a style that is more European than American. Although, contrary to perceived wisdom, there are pockets of American culture and society that have this kind of style. There is an elegance to their lives. Not only to each other, but about they way they relate to their things; the way they smoke cigarettes; the way they drink. So it is not just schlumping and naturalistic.

Drama-Logue: It sounds like you enjoy the process of teaching actors about working in the period. Robinson: "I hate to say it but there is some school marm in me. I have a vision or aesthetic that, over my 50-odd years of living, has accrued within me — it has built up. There are movies, there are plays that you would rather go to than others. There is a certain style of acting, directing and designing that give you more pleasure than others.

"Basically that's where I have come to. I like mystery, but I love elegant mystery. I love the kind of mystery where there is always the potential of an answer — a really socko devastating answer — whether it pays off or not, so that you always feel that any minute now I am going to learn something that will change my life. Whether my expectation is fulfilled or not, I don't care."

Drama-Logue: Although you have had tremendous success as a director, it is still a recent decision to devote most of your artistic talent to that role. What have you learned of most significance about directing over the past four years with The Matrix Theatre Company?

Robinson: "The first one is to admit when I don't know. Not to pretend that I do know. When I start pretending that I know and start pretending to the others that I have the answers, they can tell. I am a bad liar for one thing. But somewhere, on some level, actors know that you are lying. That erodes trust.

'The other thing is that if I get stubborn and dig my heels in and decide there is one solution to the problem, then I am being a fool. Especially working with a double cast situation, because it is so difficult.

"I have learned flexibility. When you have two actors working with each character, each has a different way of solving his or her problems than the other. Therefore for you to be able to help that actor, you have to be aware of that. The solutions I come up with for one actor may not work with another."

Drama-Logue: Also you must face the problem of actors with vastly different techniques.

Robinson: "Yes, from every generation and every orientation. I accept it. The thing about this group at the Matrix is that every last one of them is a skeptic and they are not easy on directors. That's okay because, as an actor, neither am I.

"I don't mean unreasonably so, I mean they ask questions: Why, where, what, who, when? Where are we going with this? Every one is different and if you try to give cookie cutter answers to this group they'll laugh you out of the room and they won't trust you. If you don't have their trust you don't have anything."

Drama-Logue: Your directing work recently has been with the Matrix, but are you making plans to work in other venues? How will you decide what plays to direct?

Robinson: "I like odd material. There was a play last year called Saxon Shore by this amazing English playwright David Rudkin who wrote Ashes. It is a far-out play. There is also an Irish playwright I worked with over at Skirball Kennis named Billy Roche. He has never been produced in this country. His plays are done in Ireland and at the Royal Court in London. I got to know him and read his plays. He has this one play I want to do called Calvacaders, a beautiful piece."


Producer: Joseph Stern
Set Designers: Deborah Raymond & Dorian Vernacchio
Lighting Designer: J. Kent Inasy
Costume Designer: Naomi Yoshida Rodriguez
Prop Master: Chuck Olsen
Sound Designer: Matthew C. Beville
Production Stage Manager: R. Kevin Wais
Assistant Director: H.E. Greer
Casting by: Marilyn Mandel

Return to the list of Past Productions