This review of Douglaston Community Theatre's production of James Yaffe's "Cliffhanger" at Zion Episcopal Church was written by Dr. Philip Ernest Schoenberg and published in Volume X, Issue 5 (2015) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!
Written by James Yaffe
Directed by Matt Stashin
Douglaston Community Theatre
Zion Episcopal Church
243-01 Northern Boulevard
Douglaston, New York 11363
Cliffhanger was written by James Yaffe, a Yale University graduate, who has been a member of the Department of English at Colorado College in Colorado Springs since 1968. He has written a steady stream of novels, plays, and scripts over the years. Having watched this play (originally produced at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia in 1983 and later off-Broadway at the Lamb's Theatre in New York City in 1985), I can say this particular work is better written, crafted, and more intriguing than A Murder Is Announced written by Agatha Christie, which I saw at Studio Theatre Long Island last week, or Irrational Man, a movie written and directed by Woody Allen. I saw Cliffhanger at the Douglaston Community Theatre at Zion Episcopal Church in Douglaston, New York.
James Yaffe demonstrates he has familiarity with the petty intrigues of academic life. The actors in this play vividly brought to life his characters. You have Edith Wilshire, well-played by Lorrie DePellegrini, as a petty tyrant ready to reap revenge after years of imagined slight. However, her evil plot is foiled when Henry Lowenthal, the object of her revenge, hurls his beloved statue of Socrates at her. This man of reason has just committed murder and yet, you cheer because you believe Edith has received her just desserts. The good professor is ready to call the police and confess but Polly Lowenthal, the professor's wife of 35 years perfectly portrayed by Rosemary Kurtz, objects and suggests he take a more practical course of action. She argues Edith deserved the justice she received and convinces her husband they can cover up the murder and get away with it. Henry, the man of ethics, the man of morals, who more than anyone knows the right thing is to turn himself in, follows his wife's sage advice as survival mode kicks in.
Melvin McMullen then enters, played astonishingly to perfection as an annoying, spoiled rotten, lazy student by Salvatore Casto. From the get-go, you are thoroughly annoyed by this non-student. You can scarcely resist from strangling him as he whines for a passing grade. As a college professor, I found it hard to stay in my seat and not to take direct action myself. He is the personification of every lazy, ignorant, stupid, slothful, mediocre student I ever had. Meanwhile, the professor and his wife have to endure his meandering nonsense as professor Edith Wilshire's body is getting cold in the next room. McMullen leaves by announcing he will appeal his grade to Professor Wilshire, the Chairman of the Philosophy Department.
When Henry and his wife Polly return from Edith Wilshire's memorial service, they face questioning by Dave DeVito, a police detective who is trying to find out what happened to Professor Wilshire. DeVito is convincingly played by Andy Wittman. DeVito took Henry's philosophy class a decade earlier but has no philosophy other than cynicism regarding human nature. After DeVito leaves, McMullen returns intent on blackmailing the professor into changing his failing grade to a passing one. Henry decides he'd rather commit another murder than compromise his integrity. Polly agrees to be a co-conspirator because she thinks it is likely the psychologically unstable student will eventually tell someone about the murder.
I will not tell you the ending, but I will say, that unlike with Christie or Allen, Yaffe has played fair with the audience by giving us clues to solve the mystery as it continues to unfold.
Gary Tifeld is to be commended for producing this masterpiece. Marionanne Rourke was fantastic as the stage manager. The set design by Ian M. McDonald and Matt Stashin convinced us we were in a real professor's home. Light and sound operation by Robert Stivanello and Eric Leeb enabled us to clearly see and hear what was going on. Above all, Matt Stashin did a magnificent job in directing it all.