Something's amiss beneath the straightforward dialogue and the placid English surfaces of "Pack of Lies," at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills. The Krogers, who live across the suburban street, just may be Soviet spies.
This news, delivered by a polite but forbidding stranger from the government (Michael Forest), comes as a shock to Bob and Barbara Jackson (Dennis Robertson and Dinah Anne Rogers). The Krogers are their best friends--and the Jacksons are not the sort of people who make friends easily.
Do they owe their allegiance to the flesh-and-blood people they like or to the cold abstractions that make up the concept of patriotism? In Hugh Whitemore's play, there isn't much doubt about which side they will choose. But the pain of making that choice is keenly felt.
The script is based on an actual incident that occurred in 1961. Whitemore first wrote about it for a 1971 BBC-TV production, "Act of Betrayal." In 1983 he adapted it for the stage as "Pack of Lies." Last April, "Pack of Lies" returned to television, in a CBS movie, adapted by Ralph Gallup.
The effectiveness of Charles Arthur's staging for Theatre 40 may well depend on whether the viewer saw the CBS version.
Arthur's cast is fine. Forest's physical stature adds an element of cool intimidation (ultimately, a more appropriate quality than the charm dispensed by Alan Bates in the filmed version), and Rogers and Robertson could hardly look plainer. Rogers' body language skillfully amplifies her simple lines, and Robertson manages his expository monologues with restrained eloquence. The supporting players generally hit the right notes.
Designers Ron Olsen and Michael Gilliam added one shrewd theatrical touch: a silhouette of the intelligence agent who uses a Jackson bedroom to spy on the Krogers.
Yet the frequent blackouts between scenes also betray the script's filmic origins. And finally, the play doesn't provide the payoff that one expects--and that the TV movie provided.
The extra locations used in the film--especially the exterior view of the Krogers' house and the interior of the Jacksons' bedroom--added considerable pulse-pounding. And Gallup's script was more thoughtful, as well as more thrilling, than Whitemore's.
The movie focused more pointedly on the layers of duplicity that occur in the story, particularly on the deceptions that involve the Jacksons' teen-age daughter, Julie. The character of Helen Kroger (Barbara Barnett here, Teri Garr in the movie) is much more full-bodied in Gallup's script.
The stew of suspicions and tensions at the heart of this story bubbled over in the movie. In the play, it never advances beyond a low simmer.
Performances are at 241 Moreno Drive, Beverly Hills, Thursdays through Sundays at 8 p.m., Sunday matinees at 2. Tickets: $8-$12.50; (213) 465-0070.