By Lynn Venhaus
“Mindgame” is one of those clever psychological thrillers that keeps you guessing through two acts, as the twists and gasps mount.
Set in an experimental maximum-security asylum for the criminally insane, a feeling of dread permeates the drab walls of Fairfields, which is located in an isolated part of the English countryside. In the director’s office, you can only imagine what horrors are on the other side of the door.
The program notes state that “nothing is what it seems.”
The 1999 play written by Anthony Horowitz is a rather verbose exercise, but the tension builds as we question who is legit and who is unhinged, and why the psychopaths who live undetected next door send chills up our spines.
It takes place in the summer at the turn of the 21st century, hence the modern references instead of the dated Agatha Christie-Arthur Conan Doyle tropes.
When Act One begins, a journalist has an appointment to see the director in hopes of gaining permission to interview a notorious serial killer named Easterman for a true-crime book. Easterman’s terrifying string of murders were grisly – and we’ll hear about them in more detail. Would you go near Hannibal Lecter or Ed Gein?
We will also hear about more cases, and while Easterman is fictional, the other stories are based on real murderers. For instance, sadist Andrei Chikatilo who is mentioned killed more than 50 women and children.
As presented by Albion Theatre, “Mindgame” is a tour de force for its two leading actors, Chuck Winning and Nick Freed, who are reminiscent of Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier going toe to toe (or head-to-head) in the brilliant 1972 film “Sleuth,” which was based on Anthony Shaffer’s Tony-winning play. (Fun fact: Both were so captivating that they were nominated for Oscars, losing to Marlon Brando for “The Godfather.”)
The third cast member, Nicole Angeli, is Nurse Paisley, and as always, she delivers a multi-layered performance in a smaller supporting, but pivotal, role.
Winning, as Doctor Farquhar, and Freed, as writer Mark Styler, are on stage nearly the whole time, and work so well together that it’s like watching a 5-set tennis match at the Wimbledon finals, such are the nimble verbal volleys and quicksilver shifts of power between their characters.
Earlier this year, both actors stood out in Albion’s second play, “The Birthday Party.” As a pair of menacing villains, Winning was a revelation and Freed, who moved here from Chicago, made a stunning debut.
Winning’s Farquhar is garrulous, pompous, and brainy, displaying contempt for the patients and superiority in his psychoanalysis and therapy skills. When he pontificates about his perception of how to treat the mentally ill, Winning’s hot-air blathering teeters on that fine line between ridiculous and expertise.
Freed’s Styler is confident, cocky, and skeptical at first, then increasingly unsettled by the surroundings and peculiar behaviors. His instincts are finely tuned as his moods change.
The play is elaborate in how it threads the needle from point A to point B – and that can get a little tedious as dynamics flip. However, the actors hold our attention and bring out the best in each other as scene partners, and Robert Ashton ups the ante with his adroit direction.
In British slang, the mystery’s a corker, and Ashton, a nimble theater veteran with a flair for crisp and purposeful staging, masterfully controls the suspense.
To give more away would be to spoil the plot, and the fun part of being in the audience is the discovery. Because you know something’s not quite right, and deceit and delusions are there for the deducing.
It’s a credit to all involved that they never tip us off, stay in the moment and do not anticipate what’s ahead, making us fascinated by what’s unfolding.
The technical sight and sound work are also sharp, with Erik Kuhn the tech director and set designer, and an expert fight choreographer. Eric Wennlund’s lighting design is both functional and artful while Jacob Baxley’s sound design adds layers of fright. Stage Manager and Assistant Director Gwynneth Rausch keeps the danse macabre taut.
It’s only Albion’s fourth show, and they have impressed with their well-staged productions featuring strong performances and outstanding production values. Founded in 2022 to explore the rich history of playwrighting in Britain, with regular trips across the sea to Ireland, they not only entertainan audience, but strive to inform them of the social, political, and cultural influences of the time. So far, they are nailing every facet of the archetypes of a good drama/comedy.
One thing is always a given – that the accents will be spot-on, and the trio’s work here is superb. Albion provides a word and phrases guide for us in their programs, too.
If you like hair raised and minds bent, this is a dandy way to spend 2 hours and 15 minutes.
Albion Theatre presents “Mindgame” by Anthony Horowitz from Oct. 20 to Nov. 5 at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 N. Grand in Grand Center. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. For more information, visit www. albiontheatrestl.org.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.