Lovers battle for their man in In Tandem Theatre's season opener

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In theater, as in life, love triangles can be messy affairs – especially when they involve a vengeful spouse, a soundproof cell and a bottle of poison.

Such is the premise for “The Nightmare Room,” which opens Milwaukee’s In Tandem Theatre Co.’s 2012-13 season Oct. 5 with its U.S. premiere performance. The play, freely adapted by English author John Goodrum from a story of the same name by “Sherlock Holmes” creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, considers what might happen when two women love the same film actor – and one of them happens to be his wife, who is none too happy about the arrangement.

Goodrum, who is also an actor, originally wrote the piece for his own Rumpus Theatre Co. in 1985. The company had already become known for its adaptation of Victorian and Gothic thrillers, including Bram Stoker’s “Dracula’s Guest” and Charles Dickens’ “The Signalman.” Goodrum happened upon the story, which appears in Conan Doyle’s “Tales of Terror and Mystery.”

“I saw at once its potential as a basis for a contemporary thriller,” says Goodrum from his home in England. “After so many period plays, that was an exciting prospect.”

In Doyle’s narrative, two men vie for the affections of the same woman, a former Parisian dancer who gave up her career to marry one of them. The husband confronts the suitor in an ornately decorated yet stifling drawing room. He offers to play a type of Russian roulette with beverages, one of which contains deadly poison. The survivor, of course, gets the dancer.

In Goodrum’s adaptation, the conflict comes between two women, played by actors Mary McLellan and Libby Amato. The drawing room becomes a soundproof cell in which McLellan and Amato alternately hold positions of power. The bottle of clear poison takes on the same role, with a “Twilight Zone”-style twist at the end that gives the play an even stronger appeal, says In Tandem artistic director Chris Flieller, who directed the production.

“The hairpin turns of the plot are exciting, and equally exciting is the energy the characters exhibit in pursuit of their desires,” Flieller says. “It’s sexy and dangerous.”

Keeping a show like “The Nightmare Room” on the proper emotional footing can be challenging, says Flieller, who has added lighting, sound effects and unusual perceptual tricks to draw the audience further into the narrative. More than most other types of shows, suspense thrillers require perfectly timed pacing to keep audiences on edge, he adds.

“You have to keep things moving and can’t let the audience get ahead of you, but even then some clever person will have it figured out before intermission,” says Flieller, who also directed Joe DiPietro’s “The Art of Murder” two seasons ago. “The events that play out in ‘The Nightmare Room’ are inevitable, but (Goodrum’s) plot construction will help in keeping the audience guessing until the pieces of the puzzle coalesce at the very last moment.”

The play employs flashbacks to give the narrative greater dimension.

“My wife said, ‘You always write shadowy, dark scary plays. What about writing a light, bright scary play?’” Goodrum says. “That was the challenge, and the contrast between the intensely bright, starkly lit nightmare room, where nothing is what it seems, and the more mellow flashback scenes proved that this is possible.”

Flieller expects the play, which runs through Oct. 14, to be as successful for In Tandem as “The Art of Murder” was two years ago. In fact, he expects even more from The Nightmare Room.”

“Don’t eat too much before the show – you may need a drink at intermission,” Flieller says. “And under no circumstances may you give away the ending!”

If you do, you may be facing your own nightmare (insert spooky laugh here).

In Tandem Theatre Season at a Glance

“The Nightmare Room,” Oct. 5–21

“A Cudahy Caroler Christmas,”
 Nov. 30–Jan. 5

“Beast on the Moon,” March 1–24

“Apartment 3A,” April 26–May 19