ACCORDING TO THE PRESS pack, a New York Times article concerning the murders of several hired hands by a Midwest couple inspired David Wiltse to write Temporary Help, ACT's most recent offering. I don't think I'm going out on a limb by suggesting that The Postman Always Rings Twice and any other number of sweaty works were also not far from the playwright's reach. When a troubled married couple brings a studly wanderer into their home, the dangerous possibilities have traditionally been fairly obvious, and Wiltse breaks no new ground. For all its aspirations otherwise, Temporary Help is a mishmash of stock situations both overcooked and underdone.

Bill Frisell's film noir guitar score kicks in at the beginning, and after a gunshot, the play gets off to what should be a suitable start, if you like these sort of things (and I do). Karl and Faye Streber (Thomas Kopache and Stephanie Faracy) are busy disposing of a body when they are interrupted by the suspicious interrogations of Ron Stucker (John Procaccino), one of those inquisitive small town sheriffs who always pop up when a body is being disposed. It seems that several drifters have disappeared of late, and in addition to his yen for Faye, that pesky Sheriff Stucker thinks something is amiss in the Streber household. Lucky for them, he's not around when hunky Vincent (Chad Allen), a troubled migrant worker, stumbles into the picture.

There's no question about the familiarity of this set-up, but with speed and some agility its lack of invention wouldn't matter; genre pieces are great escapes if you aren't given the time or inclination to doubt their logic. Director Gordon Edelstein, though, seems to want matters as laid back as the Midwestern setting, and keeps the blood from flowing to parts that would distract us from the inelegance of Wiltse's writing. Every new plot element is introduced with a thud, and there's no urgency behind the psychological warfare. At one point, in a bit of dramatic whiplash, we are told that three months have gone by since the opening crime, without any noticeable change in the emotional stakes. As the farm wife Faye, Stephanie Faracy is not allowed to unravel until about the three-quarter mark, and Thomas Kopache's rancid Li'l Abner-esque Karl never seems to give a damn. Though Allen and Faracy have a few good moments together, all of the other sexual overtones are muted or mishandled (the gay tension is so uncertain it plays like a joke). The show needs a good goosing that it never gets.

In more pressing concerns, Wiltse overreaches and eventually seems to be making a clumsy attempt at souping up Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for the thriller set, but George and Martha are much more lethal than even the murderous caricatures seen here. Irony has, in my opinion, been the bane of this genre for some time now, and Wiltse's straight-faced jokiness is no exception. If the entire charade is just an elaborate joke, it's not funny enough. It doesn't help matters that the playwright changes his mind about everybody but husband Karl, turning the once-threatening Vincent into a Little Boy Lost and Faye into Blanche DuBois. Faye's transformation is particularly unfortunate; I'd like to believe that there's a wink behind lines like "He strokes me with hands of velvet and sets my skin afire," but Edelstein has Faracy hanging them up like Chinese lanterns, so I must be wrong.

In a role that begs for the quicksilver, sexualized schizophrenia of Lesley Ann Warren, Faracy always seems on the verge of cutting loose, but Edelstein never shakes her. She's waiting for a rip-snortin' good time that doesn't happen. She's cheated, too, by Kopache, who is in an entirely different play. His folksy sociopath is without true underlying menace, and he's out of synch with every other character, even Procaccino's one-note walk-ons. Vincent is a character of just barely two dimensions, but Chad Allen's transitions are the most fluid of the cast; he's the only one whose tics don't come from out of left field. There's a guilelessness to his performance that suggests the tone with which the show should have been approached. I lost consciousness for a few moments when he entered shirtless halfway through Act I, but I'm fairly certain his performance was consistent throughout.

The production is, I suppose, mildly diverting for the undemanding. If you haven't seen any of its precursors, the shenanigans of Temporary Help may provide some entertainment. The fine set design by Hugh Landwehr and moody lighting by Peter Maradudin provide a much-needed veracity. As a fan of the genre, however, I can't help but gripe about the insufficient script and a production that sucks the juice out of even its best line, a closing zinger that is the play's only bit of winning irony.

Support The Stranger