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THEATER REVIEW : The Thrill Is Gone : 'Monique' is based on the novel that inspired 'Diabolique' but lacks the required suspense and emotion.

March 24, 1995|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Robert Koehler writes regularly about theater for The Times.

NORTH HOLLYWOOD — Perhaps we are already giving too much away about Dorothy and Michael Blankfort's murder mystery, "Monique," at Actors Forum Theatre, when we report that it's based on the same text that inspired the Henri-Georges Clouzot film classic "Diabolique." Still, as anyone can report once they see it, "Monique"--based on Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac's novel, "Celle Qui N'Etait Plus"--is not "Diabolique II."

As dark as "Diabolique" was, "Monique" is a shade darker and certainly more nihilistic. By now, the basic Boileau-Narcejac formula has become familiar: spouse, trapped in a bitter marriage, is cajoled to murder spouse by an aggressive lover, only to find that the crime is less than perfect. Unlike other variations on the formula, "Monique's" has Fernand and Lucienne Ravinel (Richard R. Garvin and Audrey Marlyn) as the sour spouses, and medical doctor Monique Rigaud (Ingrid Rameau) as Fernand's lover.

The Blankforts initially tease the audience's memory of Agatha Christie whodunits by establishing that everyone hates--and has a motive to rub out--Lucienne, including the maid (Deborah Sclar) and the precocious neighborhood girl with a huge crush on Fernand (Paige Moss). Furthering the tease is the Ravinel living room (a homey set by Jim Barbaley), bedecked with Fernand's gun collection.

This isn't a lineup of suspects or payoff clues, though; the sexually tinged doings of "Monique" are more intensely psychological than Christie's mathematical plottings. Fernand has been reduced, by his war experiences and Lucienne's henpecking ways, to a whimpering shadow of a man. It is Monique who makes the decisions and stays one step ahead of retired detective Merlin (Gordon Ross).

This is a brain tickler only if "Diabolique" is, at most, a hazy memory. If not, "Monique" actually plays out rather predictably, and it takes a long time for director Shawn Michaels' staging to work up suspenseful energy.

Indeed, Act I is so lugubrious and plodding that you almost stop caring before the plot really kicks in. Accents range from mock-British (Garvin) to mock-French (David Ian Davies' nosy gardener) to pure Eastern seaboard (Marlyn) and, except for Moss' love-struck girl-woman, the general emotional flatness is stunningly destructive to this story.

Tension mounts after intermission, mostly because of Garvin. But it's still a 50% performance, with much of Fernand's emotional dilemma unexpressed. Rameau is so steely as Monique that she's like a walking weapon, programmed to get her way. She's much scarier than Marlyn's angry wife, who is impossible to believe for a moment. Ross lacks Merlin's necessary amusing side (he's the prototype for Columbo), but some of the support is keener than the leads: the impassioned Moss, the ditsy Sclar and the deftly comic Larry Lederman as Fernand's sickly brother-in-law.

A final note: Actors Forum's new North Hollywood theater looks like a business from the street, but inside is a large lobby, raked seating (with seats too small for larger people), and excellent sound and light equipment. It's a much more comfortable place to hear and watch a play than this group's former Cahuenga Boulevard space.

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WHERE AND WHEN

What: "Monique."

Location: Actors Forum Theatre, 10655 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood.

Hours: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday. Ends May 7.

Price: $12.50 to $15.

Call: (818) 506-0600.

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