KPBS AIRDATE: January 15, 1992
If you’re a puzzle person, a magic maven or a techno-weenie, you’re gonna love “Solitary Confinement.” It’s kind of like “Sleuth” meets Laurie Anderson.
A Howard Hughes-like reclusive billionaire named Richard Jannings lives atop his high-rise Albuquerque empire. He loves to play games. And he hates to deal with people. So he interacts with his entire staff through techno-wizardry: a huge, nine-screen video monitor that allows him to click on, by remote control, any location in his dynasty and any employee he chooses.
They, of course, cannot see him. But he is free to torture, with all manner of verbal abuse, his entire entourage, including the smarmy vice president, the octogenarian guard, the frumpy female researcher and the frustrated French chef. He takes delight in turning them on and off like so many boring commercials. But then, his crew turns against him and a murderer finds his way into Jannings’ impenetrable lair. Now the fun really starts. The fun and games, I should say.
The suave, supple actor Stacy Keach, trapped in this charismatic but curmudgeonly character, really gets to turn on his talent when the unexpected visitor arrives. We get games galore. Whole chunks of the second act, in fact, are a high-tech, nineties version of Name That Tune, Beat the Clock, and You Bet Your Life. The visitor is racing against death, and each of us in the audience is trying desperately to guess the enigmatic answers before he does.
It’s not a brilliant plot, but it’s well crafted and cunningly written — by Rupert Holmes, the singer who brought us The Pina Colada Song and the playwright who garnered three Tonys for his musical “Drood” and twice broke all box office records at the Pasadena Playhouse, first with “Accomplice,” and, last November, with the world premiere of “Solitary Confinement.”
This production will only be here until January 26, after which it heads for the Kennedy Center and then Broadway. You won’t want to miss it, because it’s enormously good fun, and it’s incredibly well executed, with creative technology and hair-trigger timing, galvanized by a high-voltage performance by Keach.
And William Barclay’s elaborate and detailed set is a delight: elegant wood and marble, which fits perfectly into the old, multi-tiered Spreckels Theatre. But the scenic surprise is the mix of antiquity and futuristic flights of fancy, which the character himself describes as “Oscar Wilde meets The Sharper Image.”
You’ll enjoy the play even more if you’re a pop-culture fan, and don’t mind your theater crammed with references to the likes of Bruce Lee and Jacoby & Myers. I could pass on that, thanks; too much TV infiltration for my blood. But it’s a pleasure to see a performance like Keach’s. And I don’t mind being manipulated by such mind-bending, clever fun.
It’s audience interaction of a pseudo-sort and video interaction of a nineties kind. Welcome to the New Age of thrillers: Tuned on, turned in, and popped out.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1992 Patté Productions Inc.