Greasy Joan & Company
at Victory Gardens Theater
By Adam Langer
Telling the truth, observes one character in J.B. Priestley’s crafty 1932 psychological thriller, is as dangerous as careening around a corner at 60 miles an hour. And as it turns out, it’s even more risky in the play: some expert drivers might be able to negotiate a hairpin turn at such a speed, but in Priestley’s world of deception, no one escapes the truth unscathed.
Telling the truth has always been risky in myth and literature, as Diogenes and the proverbial messenger can attest. Saki’s talking feline, Tobermory, tells the humans around him what he really thinks and winds up learning that there is, ultimately, only one way to skin a cat. And Warren Beatty’s Senator Bulworth takes a bullet as a reward for his honesty.
The characters in Dangerous Corner learn that the closer one gets to the truth, the more hazardous it becomes. As Priestley sees things, virtually every social construct–marriage, friendship, government, religion, even theater–is founded on an unstated agreement between all parties that no one will reveal the whole truth. “What people mean by truth,” one person says in the play, “is half-truth.”
Think of how difficult our existence would become if, as ultimately happens in Priestley’s play, everyone began revealing the most private and hurtful truths at the most inopportune times. Even watching Greasy Joan & Company’s production of the play could become problematic. At the opening performance I might have berated the six-foot-four behemoth in front of me for leaning forward in his seat and blocking my view. He in turn might have explained that he was trying to see past a critic who was continually yawning and rustling the pages of the program. A fistfight might have ensued. Butch the usher would have had to come in and break it up, and then where would we be? Certainly not watching the play.
Priestley, the jaw-droppingly prolific British novelist, essayist, and playwright who died in 1984 at the age of 90, is perhaps best known for another psychological whodunit, An Inspector Calls. He’s set Dangerous Corner in a vacation cottage where a group of friends and colleagues has gathered for a leisurely weekend. At first the conversation is quite banal, sprinkled with witticisms, gibes, and pleasantries. Freda and Robert Chatfield are the charming hosts, and their guests include youthful, sprightly Betty Whitehouse and her doting husband, Gordon; Robert and Gordon’s suave coworker Charles Stanton; charming author Olwen Peel; and endearingly nosy Maude Mockridge. It’s a “snug little group,” as one character puts it, a “cozy little nest” looking for all the world like a garden party or a gathering of board-game enthusiasts. Then the sound of an errant gunshot triggers memories of Robert Chatfield’s brother’s suicide. Subsequent discussion of Martin’s death leads to revelation after revelation, each more damning than the last.
Priestley’s play resembles The Big Chill on an overdose of truth serum. Both marriages are shams. One man is revealed to be a thief, another a fool. Ultimately the play isn’t so much a whodunit as a whodidn’tdoit, or at least a whodidn’tdosomething. One by one Priestley draws aside the veils of politeness, decency, and supposed honesty from each character, gleefully checking them off like Agatha Christie bumping off her ten little Indians. Even the deceased Martin gets his share of the accumulating burden of truths. Labeled “a born mischief maker, cruel as a cat,” he’s suggested to be at best a cad and drug addict and at worst a rapist. Even his suicide is called into question.
“He wanted the truth,” one character says of another in the play. “Let him have it.”
“You wanted the truth and now you’re getting it,” another later opines.
“They wanted the truth and they can have it,” says a third.
Priestley’s unceasing stream of revelations might seem a bit too schematic, too obviously designed to demonstrate his belief that we should “let sleeping dogs lie,” as one character says. The play’s most melodramatic moments, when the characters finally reveal what they were doing on the night of Martin’s alleged suicide and declare their loves and hates, can indeed feel unspeakably hoary, on the order of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap or a live-action version of Clue. But if it’s hard to suppress a chuckle at the umpteenth demonstration that there is, as Inspector Clouseau once declared, “more here than meets the ear,” it’s equally hard to deny how effective and clever Priestley’s stagecraft is. Watching the characters systematically dismantle their own and others’ facades has the guilty but compulsive fascination of really good gossip or a 1940s Bette Davis soap opera. Long before the play’s inevitable tragic conclusion one comes to understand and agree with Priestley’s cynical deconstruction of polite society. But that doesn’t detract from the play’s intrigue and suspense, any more than knowing the hero will blind himself destroys the experience of Oedipus Rex.
The fact that Dangerous Corner is more than 60 years old yet remains a tantalizing, wonderfully entertaining treat is a tribute not only to Priestley’s skill but to Greasy Joan’s stylish, pitch-perfect production, which takes the play to a level of insight and intelligence well beyond its parlor game trappings. Though many companies might have been tempted to acknowledge the script’s datedness–particularly some laughable Reefer Madness-style references to drugs–director Sandra Grand and her exceedingly talented cast play the material perfectly straight. The result couldn’t be more engaging. The performances are layered with nuance and innuendo, and each expertly constructed stage picture shimmers with understated elegance, immaculate yet suggesting a messy reality beneath the attractive surface. This may be a play about lies, but every polished moment in it has a naked honesty.