When you listen to Quentin Tarantino do an interview, his reedy, hyperkinetic, yammering voice rebounds off the bebop energy field of his ideas, and he has an insolent charm. But when you replace the ideas with conventional dialogue, all you’re left with is the sound of Quentin Tarantino — which is to say, the voice of a precociously bratty college whiz kid. As Harry Roat, the psycho master of disguise who’s the chief villain in the chaotic new Broadway production of Wait Until Dark, Frederick Knott’s 1966 blind-woman-in-peril thriller, Tarantino makes his entrance doing a ”badass” Saturday Night Live impersonation of Samuel L. Jackson (mercifully, he abandons it after two minutes) and then spends the rest of the play trying to act mean and stealthy and dangerous. But he’s about as threatening as an apoplectic professor. There’s no richness, no sinister timbre, to his ticker-tape delivery. Dazzling when he’s doing what he was born to do — direct movies — Tarantino has become the Madonna of male thespian wannabes: a figure desperate to grab the theatrical spotlight, yet doomed by the very calculation of his mind to seem flat and telegraphed just when he thinks he’s being extravagant.
In Wait Until Dark, Harry and his two fellow thugs attempt to charm, deceive, and terrorize Susy (Marisa Tomei), the blind mark, into giving up a doll stashed with heroin (how the doll came into her possession in the first place is one of the most tortured contrivances in the history of suspense). Set entirely in Susy’s Manhattan basement apartment, Knott’s play was always a garish and convoluted piece of work, but the 1967 movie version, starring Audrey Hepburn, had rhythm, atmosphere, and a slyly understated performance by Alan Arkin, in beatnik hair and John Lennon sunglasses, as the evil Harry.
The new production has been given the disastrously over-the-top pace of a fractious farce like Noises Off. Everything goes by in a blur — the bewildering murder that gets the action rolling, the villains’ bizarrely labored attempt to assume fake identities. Tomei, with her misplaced giddiness, suggests a blind cheerleader: now exuberant, now hysterical, never simply hushed and tremulous, so the threats can reverberate off Susy’s heightened sensory awareness. Finally, the climax arrives, as Harry stalks Susy on a darkened stage. But when that famous refrigerator light appears, the big shock isn’t the slasher-movie violence. It’s that Tarantino, out of his overcoat, appears to have prepared for this role primarily by hitting the dessert cart. If only his acting were half as substantial. C-