A Screwed-Up Screw

A Screwed-Up Screw
The Turn of the Screw. Adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher from Henry James' novella. Directed by Lee Sankowich. Starring Darren Bridgett and Jenny Lord. At Marin Theater Company, 397 Miller Ave. in Mill Valley, through Feb. 8. Call 388-5208.

When Henry James' Turn of the Screw first appeared, in 1898, a critic warned that the novella was "by no means safe to give for a Christmas present." Haunted by lecherous ghosts, morally questionable orphans, and a zealous young governess, the tale's effect is chilling even in this age of abundant Screams and Aliens. But the book's essential danger is itself threatened when translated to the stage. Theater usually relies on its characters to stabilize the story; if they disintegrate or contradict themselves, the story dissolves as well. James' psychodrama, on the other hand, depends on the unswerving unreliability of its narrator. It holds you close to her manic mental manipulations. What's a stage adaptation to do with a narrative in which the reader is drawn closer and closer to the narrator, as if by a tightening screw?

James' story involves an unnamed vigilant virgin, hired as governess to two "holy infants" -- a young girl of 5 or 6 and a boy a few years older. The governess is indelibly smitten with their handsome and aloof uncle, but part of her assignment is never ever to trouble him. She is to live with the children on his remote country estate while he remains elsewhere. She meticulously fulfills her duty but, weirder and worse, works to "save" the children from the prurient interest of ghosts she's sure occupy them. It's not the ghosts' cravings that rivet us but her multiple, intertwined desires.

Jeffrey Hatcher structures his stage adaptation around the young woman's obsessiveness. One actor, Jenny Lord, plays only the governess; the other, Darren Bridgett, plays everyone else. Although the governess has an actress all to herself, the script consistently undermines her centrality by supplying dopey literalizations for the intricate possibilities she perceives: In her interview with the uncle, he plants a long kiss on her hand and engages in smirking innuendo. She makes out with her young male charge, embellishing to the point of absurdity what the book depicts as an attraction as irresistible as it is actively repressed. And the housekeeper speaks the "unspeakable" horrors. The play eliminates that Jamesian trick where the actual miseries of the characters' "small smothered [lives]" transmute into grotesque phantasms. The novella depicts the danger of intimations one won't or can't pursue, of desires that become terrifying because they've been buried alive. The play offers a simpler problem: Are the ghosts real or is the lady mad?

Presenting The Turn of the Screw as a potboiler, Hatcher maintains a clip that maximizes suspense. The play runs without an intermission, and all the action takes place against a gray, stone staircase that winds up one side of the stage and down the other: There's no escaping these Victorian confines no matter how many steps you take.

But the thinness of the characters hinders the play's progress. Jenny Lord's governess is a hysterical prig, her voice too strident and brittle for obsession. She denies her fixations the dignity that attaches to deep feeling, even when it's distorted or insane. Her lack of conviction drains power from the staging's central conundrum: Is or isn't the governess right to believe in ghosts? Darren Bridgett reduces the boy, the drama's compelling black hole, to an impudent twerp, his little belly permanently, intractably riding before him. Whether, on top of this, he's been messing around with ghosts and the governess' mind ends up beside the point.

In the last year or so, writers and directors have been cycling through James' work as if they didn't notice how it resists conversion to stage and screen. His stories are not mainly about what is seen, said, or understood -- though there is a good deal of posturing, talk, and analysis -- but about the unanswered or unasked questions that remain after it all. One way or another, those who attempt it tend to excise the James from their productions. Marin Theater Company's Turn of the Screw is no exception. It attacks subtleties with power tools.

-- Apollinaire Scherr

About This Play...
Sexual Perversity in Chicago. By David Mamet. Directed by Lori Glumac. Starring M. Jane Barrett, Brian Scott Clark, Elaine Jo Mello, and Douglas Sept. At the Jewel Theater, 655 Geary (at Jones), through Feb. 14. Call 567-3005.

It's a miracle of Hollywood hackwriting that David Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago ever became a movie, because the original play has a pathetically slim plot. The story goes like this: Boy screws girl, boy and girl move in together, boy and girl bicker like husband and wife until girl moves out again. Curtain. The '80s movie version, About Last Night ..., churned this scenario into a long and colossally boring romantic comedy, but the play is compact and tight, masking the story's thinness with Mamet's bantering dialogue, and with a sense that Mamet has written about Contemporary Issues, in this case what it's like to be single just after the sexual revolution. The play is set -- or stuck -- in 1976; the production playing now at the Jewel Theater is a decent revival, in full '70s panoply, with at least two actors who can do justice to the dialogue. The opening lines are famous:

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