Atmosphere is important in a period thriller, but it can be overdone. Take the Pacific Theatre Ensemble's production of Daniel O'Connor's "Slaughterhouse on Tanner's Close," which has transferred to Stages.
It is a tale of body snatching and murder, set in the back alleys of Edinburgh, circa 1830. Its stage pictures are extraordinary, particularly for a small theater.
A surgeon's examining room will become a thieves' lane, which will in turn transmute into a graveyard at the stroke of midnight: all managed with the swiftness of film, but with the economy of theater.
"Nicholas Nickleby" didn't do it better. (Michael Hynes designed the "Slaughterhouse" set; Marty Schiff the lighting; John Brandt, Sarah Zinsser and Betsy Klingelhoefer the costumes.) And O'Connor, as director, makes sure that his actors live in each scene, as well as while changing them.
But the mise en scene grows oppressive after a time in such a small space, particularly when belaboring some very familiar material. It is not a new idea that ruffians like their gin and that doxies love their trade. In Victorian melodrama, they always do.
"Slaughterhouse" needs to spend less time on back-alley roistering and more time with its one "respectable" figure: a surgeon who has a fairly good idea where his corpses are coming from, but who is not about to press the issue, since he needs fresh cadavers to teach real surgery, as opposed to surgery out of a book.
That's a serious theme, particularly since the surgeon truly is fighting for science--at first. Actor Thomas Oglesby could use one or two more scenes to flesh out his character's moral descent.
Conversely, it takes too long for our grave robbers to reach the point where they decide to go directly to the source. Jeffrey Josephson could accomplish his conversion to compulsive murderer in one or two fewer scenes.
This last has a sexual component, also not unknown in Victorian thrillers, but brought out quite graphically here. This isn't a show for children or for the squeamish.
Richard Green's synthesizer score is lightly chilling. Its spareness suggests what "Slaughterhouse" needs: less virtuosity and more time for the ghastliness to sink in.
Plays Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m. Closes March 13. Tickets $12-$14. 1540 N. McCadden Place. (213) 465-1010.
John Olive's "Minnesota Moon" at the Cassandra Gaylord Theatre is a one-act about two high school buddies saying farewell after senior year. Steven-Lloyd Williams is off to college in the Twin Cities, while Sean Faro will stay in the sticks pumping gas.
Goofing off and cracking a beer, Williams and Faro are likable and believable. Since Faro came in with only four days notice, perhaps it's inevitable that the silences don't get played. Still, these should be the most eloquent part of the script. Now that the play is up, it needs a director.
Performances continue at 8:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 6543 Santa Monica Blvd. (213) 654-2141.