When Anthony Horowitz's Mindgame premiered off-Broadway two years ago, it garnered a scathing review from the New York Times. The critic actually indicated he thought the show was part of an elaborate practical joke.
How different that production must have been from the wonderfully enjoyable current staging from Jobsite Theater.
At least in this incarnation, Mindgame is a relentlessly clever and witty comedy. It borrows its template from what used to be called the "psychological thriller" — comparisons to Anthony Shaffer's Sleuth and Ira Levin's Deathtrap are inevitable — but it's almost completely comic; the psychology and thrills are mere trappings.
The setting is an asylum in the British countryside, where the country's most murderous madmen are locked away.
A man named Styler, the author of popular true crime books, has come to the institution in hopes of meeting and writing about one of the asylum residents, the most vicious serial killer of all.
Soon Styler realizes that something is quite amiss at this institution, though he's not quite sure what. Farquhar, the director of the asylum, doesn't seem to want to let Styler leave. A nurse is dressed in platform go-go boots and seems deathly afraid.
Through the first act, Horowitz makes sure the audience is one step ahead of the author, which is part of the fun.
Styler, played by Jobsite regular Jason Vaughan Evans (who has never been better), catches up at the end of Act I. In Act II, through some minor but intriguing turns in the story line, it becomes obvious that another huge surprise is in store. But even though you see a plot twist coming, you don't know what it will be.
After the final curtain, though, when you're replaying the plot in your head, you realize that Horowitz has given you all the clues you need to figure out the play's ultimate surprise. He's set an intellectual trap and warned you about it, but you've still stepped into it.
Director David M. Jenkins makes sure the whole thing is played for laughs, and there are plenty. Horowitz's dialogue is sharp, Evans is amusingly unrestrained and Brian Shea, as Farquhar, gives one of the most impressive comic performances you're likely to see on local stages this year. Longtime local actor Elizabeth Fendrick is subtly hilarious as the nurse.
The only problem is one of economy. The play is a good 10 to 15 minutes too long, and could easily be trimmed of its redundancies.
That New York production, directed by film director Ken Russell and starring Keith Carradine, was apparently staged as a thriller with some comic underpinnings. It's easy to see how that would have failed, especially given Russell's penchant for overstatement: The action is far too preposterous to be thrilling. Jenkins has made the right choice in keeping this light, and great performances — including a stunning turn by Shea — and a wonderful set by Brian Smallheer make Mindgame terrifically entertaining.
One caveat: Even though Horowitz is best known for his series of novels about teenage spy Alex Rider, Mindgame is not at all appropriate for children.