Perhaps it was my imagination, but I would swear that a collective sigh of deep contentment went up through the audience about 20 minutes into

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The farmer takes a life

David Wiltse's new thriller at ACT gives the people what they want.

Perhaps it was my imagination, but I would swear that a collective sigh of deep contentment went up through the audience about 20 minutes into the opening night of Temporary Help, the new play by David Wiltse receiving its world premiere at ACT. Once they realized that they were being treated to a good old-fashioned thriller with no pretensions to any serious message, the resulting delight was akin to a classroom full of kids who've discovered that the substitute teacher has scheduled a film instead of a test.

Temporary Help

A Contemporary Theater

ends September 12

Not that our local stages play much intellectual hardball with their audiences. Between musicals and comedies, there's plenty to keep the folks entertained, and goodness knows the sort of "social problem" play that regional theaters favor is one that comes out strongly against racism, poverty, injustice, or some other issue in vital controversy.

If you had to make a plea to your local funding board about "social relevancy," I suppose you could say something about Temporary Help "highlighting the plight of independent farmers in the Midwest teetering on economic extinction and only able to hold their family unit together through extraordinary means." Which, in this case, mean systematically murdering the hired help. The play begins (literally) with a bang, as Karl (Tom Kopache) and Faye (Stephanie Faracy) do in the latest in a long line of drifters who've been brought in for a stint of manual labor. This being a thriller, no sooner is the body stretched out on the kitchen linoleum then the requisite sheriff (John Procaccino, characteristically solid and moral) comes by for a visit, and here we get our first bit of character insight into the thrifty, if murderous, couple. While Faye nervously flirts with Sheriff Ron, husband Karl begins a gleeful game of cat-and-mouse with the slow and steady officer, and it's immediately clear that whatever the financial motive might be, he's most decidedly a thrill-killer.

Kopache is a dandy psychotic, the sort of actor normally typecast as a kindly father or caring professional but who here is clearly having a blast as the sort of sadist who'd make an excellent high school wrestling coach. His impressive muscularity is a startling contrast to his gray hair and genial smile, and it's hard not to root for his deviant scheming because he's so surprisingly vital.

While Sheriff Ron may not be much of a match for the feral Karl, the newest arrival on the farm, the handsome drifter Vincent (Chad Allen), may well be. Vincent's got something of a mysterious past, and though he's not exactly quick on the uptake, 40-something Faye is clearly taken with this muscular young buck. (So's Karl, for that matter, though his lascivious advances seem just another way of screwing with his quarry's mind.) Soon Vincent's become a third player in the murder game, and the only serious question that remains is who's going to be done in by whom first.

Allen, with his TV good looks and boyish smile, is perfectly fine as the perhaps-not-necessarily a victim, and Faracy, in a varied collection of floral summer dresses, has plenty of smoldering older-woman sexiness. The only problem, really, with this tidy little scenario is the play's second half, where the necessary extra little turns of the screw don't quite occur. Like a farce, a thriller demands a scrupulous attention to its plot, and Wiltse simply runs out of twists about a half hour too early. He tries to cover over this deficiency through exposition and character conflict, but it's too late for us to work up much in the way of empathy for these people. Despite this deficiency, this is still a malicious bit of fun, deftly directed by Edelstein, and while one might smirk at the program notes dedicated to "The Literary Lineage of Lust, Love & Land," it's a downright pleasure to enjoy this late summer offering in the spirit of creative hooky.

 
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