Part-time Seattle resident Steven Dietz adds noir thriller to his ever-expanding list of theater genres with “On Clover Road,” a play full of twists and turns at Seattle Public Theater.
It’s not much of an exaggeration to call Steven Dietz a playwright who never met a genre he didn’t like.
The ever-expanding collection of works by this industrious and versatile part-time Seattle resident includes conspiracy fables, docudramas, adaptations of classics, mysteries, political spoofs, at least one musical and, introduced last year by ACT Theatre, a poignant literary romance (the award-winning “Bloomsday”).
So maybe it was inevitable for Dietz to tackle the lurid suspense genre that fellow dramatists Tracy Letts (in “Killer Joe”) and others have also revisited recently. And with “On Clover Road,” Dietz nails the iconic dramaturgical tropes of film noir and neo-noir: the corkscrew twists of plot and gasp-worthy shocks, the diabolical villainy, the cynical perversion of innocence.
‘On Clover Road’
by Steven Dietz. Through Oct. 16 at Seattle Public Theater, 7312 West Green Lake Drive N., Seattle; $17-$34 (206-524-1300 or seattlepublictheater.org).
The show certainly gripped the attentive audience at a recent performance. And one can surely admire the assurance and architecture of Dietz’s taut little thriller. Yet for all its hairpin turns and gritty emotionalism, “On Clover Road” can also leave you oddly unmoved.
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In Seattle Public Theatre’s polished local premiere, the play unfolds in one 90-minute gulp on scenic designer Christopher Mumaw’s perfectly grim, B-movie setting: a drably menacing motel on (where else?) the outskirts of nowhere. (Think: the grungy motel in Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil.”)
With the windows crudely barred and shabby curtains drawn, the glowering middle-aged Stine (played with wounded menace by Mike Dooly) barks instructions at Kate (Meg McLynn), the anxious mother of a long-missing teenage daughter. Stine is, it seems, a deprogrammer of young female members of an insidious cult run by (who else?) a sleazy would-be prophet (played by Brian David Simmons) who preys on nubile adolescents for kicks and profit.
Dietz teases out information about his characters a drop at a time while ratcheting up their anxiety. One can’t help but identify with McLynn’s believably disoriented, fearful Kate, who objects, then cowers as Stine’s creepy methods are put to use. Her backstory is revealed to us through the device of a case file, as well as Stine’s guilt-tripping innuendoes about her life choices and inferior parenting.
Once an apparently dazed, brainwashed girl (enacted by Chesa Greene) is brought in and introduced as Kate’s long-lost daughter, the plot thickens into a noxious stew. A favorite stuffed toy is bandied about. Ugly spurts of violence erupt. Weapons keep changing hands. Identities are slippery. And Dietz messes up your mind with fake-outs — until you start anticipating them.
The plot gets more convoluted, but Seattle Public Theatre asks patrons and critics not to divulge too many particulars; no spoilers here. But what’s left after you strip away the shocks and twists is a murky mélange of psycho-melodrama that can leave a sour taste and a thirst for meaning.
If you can take “On Clover Road” as an entertaining homage to a stylishly pulpy genre that some of us (including me) have a weakness for, then lean in and enjoy the intense performances, the shadowy and incriminating lighting of Andrew D. Smith, Evan Mosher’s foreboding sound design, and director Kelly Kitchens’ exacting, well-paced staging.
But the play takes itself awfully seriously, without tongue-in-cheek parody or radical departure. Like many a noir, it’s a morality tale, but what’s the moral? Is it that hackneyed old saw that blames the bad mommy (single, with a drinking problem, not nice enough to her love-deprived kid), and roots for her reformation? Or yet another queasy warning about child abduction? And predatory cults?
On the other hand, Hitchcock once said, “Always make the audience suffer as much as possible.” And he also advised, “Give them pleasure — the same pleasure they have when they wake up from a nightmare.”