Anyone who saw “On Clover Road” at American Blues Theater last year knows the Steven Dietz can write a hair-raising thriller. The world premiere of his “How A Boy Falls” at Northlight Theatre isn't in that league, but the 75-minute play, which was commissioned by the theater and directed by Halena Kays (as was “On Clover Road”), does have its moments.
The central mystery is the disappearance of a four-year-old boy named Alex, who was playing hide-and-seek on the forbidden-to-him balcony of the home owned by his rich parents. His Mickey Mouse hat and a couple of other effects are found on the rocks below, though an extensive search fails to turn up the body.
Suspicion, at least of negligence, falls on Chelle (Cassidy Slaughter-Mason), the au pair recently hired by Paul (Tim Decker), the husband, who owns an enormously successful business. In fact, the play opens with her sitting at a cafe table waiting for him to arrive to interview her for the job. Two other men are at the cafe watching her appreciatively: Sam (Sean Parris) and Mitch (Travis A. Knight), who urges Sam to take a chance and make a move on Chelle.
Chelle's interview doesn't go as she expected, and when she arrives at the house to start work, she discovers that Paul's wife Miranda (Michelle Duffy) didn't even know he was hiring an au pair, much less a live-in one, though he had claimed it was at her suggestion. From there, things start getting complicated, a situation that is exacerbated by the fact that the scenes don't take place in chronological order.
Suffice it to say that almost no one is who he or she seems to be, and everyone has a secret agenda. Least mysterious is Sam, who works for a catering company but pretends to be an assassin when Chelle wants to hire one. He gets completely caught up in trying to help her figure out what's going on because, even after the boy's disappearance, Paul is dead set against her leaving the house. She feels trapped by him and the thought, instilled by him, that her unpleasant past may be catching up with her.
As it turns out, Miranda also feels trapped by Paul. He's fond of telling the story of how they met, but their happy marriage is mostly a fiction. She threatens to leave him, taking Alexander, as she calls him, with her. She even has a plan, but it doesn't go the way she wants. Most baffling is the role of Mitch, who is doing double duty and then some.
The main problem with “How A Boy Falls” as a thriller is that it's simply not all that thrilling. Figuring out the main premise involving the boy's disappearance is pretty easy, while some of the details are confusing to follow, and others aren't accompanied by clues to make them compelling.
There's also not enough dramatic tension. Paul is the villain of the piece, but in Decker's performance he does a lot of yelling without making us feel that he's really menacing. Also, his motivations are hard to figure out. Miranda says he can't stand being alone, but that isn't enough of an explanation for him to insist on keeping Chelle around, especially since their relationship doesn't seem to have a sexual component.
Of the others, Parris' Sam is the most engaging and functions as our way into the story. We know that Knight's Mitch, who asks a lot of questions but reveals little about himself, is up to something from the start, but what it is exactly is only revealed gradually and not entirely convincingly. Duffy's strong Miranda stands up to Paul in a satisfying way, while Slaughter-Mason's Chelle starts out a bit dull but grows in complexity,
Technically, I found “How A Boy Falls” underwhelming, particularly Lizzie Bracken's rather minimal modern scenic design. Overall, the show is mildly enjoyable but doesn't hold a candle to classics like “The Mousetrap.”