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“World’s full of Hilliards.”

May 31, 2011

CARSON: Maybe the slime still clings to some of us. Them. But you’re a police officer, Jess . . . and civilized men can’t let the slime on them drag us back down. If we don’t live by the rules, the rules will soon disappear. Then . . . (Shrugs.) we’re all right back where we started.

Upon reading Joseph Haye’s The Desperate Hours, I realized the closest I’ve ever come to seeing an on-stage thriller was the 2008 Broadway production of Gypsy. (Don’t let anyone try to convince you that Gypsy is a musical comedy. It’s more of a thriller than Sweeney Todd, which is actually billed as one.) This is certainly one thriller that I wouldn’t mind seeing on stage.

The Desperate Hours one of those plays where you’d best not get Plot confused with Theme, or you’d be sorely disappointed. Here, the plot is straightforward, a convict escapes from prison and holes up in a house, taking a family hostage, while he gets all his ducks in a row so he can take revenge on the cop that decked him one way back. Things go right, things go wrong, the convict and his accomplices all get it in the end.

But then there’s the theme, stated above by Agent Carson: when it comes down to it, where is the line between us and them? And how, in the heat of the moment, can we keep from crossing it? In the beginning, Hayes is able to weave his theme so subtly and characteristically that we don’t really feel it fully until the conclusion, which proves a natural result of the preceding action. We feel deeply for Griffin, Hilliard, and Carson alike, as villain, hero, and fallen hero. And we understand both why Hilliard refuses violent means and, though hypocritical, why Carson chooses violence over the rules he’d so lauded earlier in the play. And we, too, are disgusted with the human race.

Except for Hilliard.

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