By Steven King, adapted by Simon Moore
Directed by Doug O'Keefe
Delvena Theatre
Boston Center for the Arts -- Through April 20th

Launching new plays is risky business, but The Boston Center for the Arts has added immeasurably to the riches of the region's theatre by providing three small performance spaces under one BCA roof, where the risk involved in doing premieres can be minimized. Cooperative promotion, ambitious standards, and subsidized rents that make BCA tickets affordable have all led to the development of an audience that isn’t risk-averse -- one able to relish an interesting-but-flawed production of a new script.

The Delvena Theatre, which has been rather an oddity at the BCA with its lackluster versions of such standbys as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and “Shirley Valentine”, has finally got with the program and is venturing a premiere: "Misery", by British writer Simon Moore. However, this is a premiere with a difference: one with built-in brand name recognition. "Misery" is a stage adaptation of Steven King’s popular novel of 1987, already successful as an Oscar-winning movie with Kathy Bates. Plus, Moore’s script, while new to the USA, has already had a run in London. Presumably there is an eager legion of King fans ready to line up to see Delvena's “Misery” up close and personal in the intimate Leland Center space. Well, if this misbegotten mess of a play draws crowds, the old adage can be considered proved. Misery really does love company.

For those who may have missed the advertising campaigns of both the book and the movie, here’s a quick synopsis of the “Misery” situation: Paul Sheldon (David Geissler) is the best-selling author of a trashy series of historical romances featuring a put-upon heroine named Misery. Speeding through a blizzard away from the secluded Colorado cabin where he has written his latest book, and carrying with him the only copy of his new manuscript, Sheldon slides off the road and into the deepening snow. He is pulled out of the wreck by Annie Wilkes (Lynne Moulton), a remarkably strong plain woman of about his own age who takes him to her isolated farmhouse and patches him up. Annie announces that she is a trained nurse and Paul Sheldon’s number one fan. It quickly becomes clear that the miserable Annie is literally addicted to the emotional jolt Sheldon’s novels provide her. But Paul despises his successful trash, and in his most recent volume of the Misery series -- which, coincidentally, Annie has not yet purchased and read-- his heroine is killed off. The saga was brought to an end to free its author to write the serious, ambitious literary manuscript that Paul was carrying to his agent when he crashed. But Annie is crazy enough to do whatever it takes to assure that she has a replenished supply of “Misery” now that the source has fallen into her hands. Paul must placate her until he can manage somehow to escape.

Since the person who contrived this story, Steven King, is himself the best-selling author of a fabulously successful series of trashy horror novels, one might expect a certain level of competence in the plot as well as enough personal investment in the material for the author to trace its psychology in depth and detail. King also promises to give some insight into the creative process, and this is the aspect that Delvena stresses will be the focus of the company’s production. “Paul undergoes a psychological change. He realizes that he’s doing his best work when he’s around this crazy woman.”

Unfortunately for this interpretation, the audience gets to hear bits of Paul’s work-- the despised hackwork of the “last” Misery novel, the new Misery novel cranked out under duress to satisfy Annie’s sick craving, and the "serious" novel Paul has composed to gain literary respectability -- and they are all garbage, parodies that mock the very idea of reading or writing novels as a worthwhile activity. The snippets of the novels read aloud in the play reveal that Sheldon’s dialogue is clunky and improbable, his plots a farrago of bizarre coincidences, his characterizations cardboard. Paul's "best" work is abysmal, even when the comparison is with genre banality, and Annie's obsession with it is a sick joke-- the audience is cued to laugh. It must have been hard to achieve this effect of contrast, because the King/Moore dialogue, plot, and characterization in the surrounding play sets such a low standard-- it’s a case of going from very very bad to even worse. Incredible that such drivel would be published, reviewed, bought and read -- yet these miserable actors have had to memorize the stuff!

Director Doug O'Keefe and the Delvena company certainly haven’t the technical chops to compensate for the deficiencies of their chosen script. The challenge of crafting a play with only two characters is first, how to provide the audience with the information and the emotions that each of the characters would naturally conceal from the other; and second, how to get those two characters from scene to scene in a way that indicates that time has passed and the situation has changed and yet doesn't leave the audience sitting in the dark with nothing to see or hear. Possible solutions range from abandoning naturalism and employing classical stage devices like the soliloquy to mimicking the fluidity of film with high-tech razzle dazzle like turntables and multimedia. None of these devices appear in Moore's stage adaptation to replace the first-person access to Sheldon's mind that shapes King's novel or the wider-world rescue subplot that propels the script William Goldman wrote for the movie. But it is especially important not to give the audience a chance to think during a thriller like "Misery", where even a few moments of reflection are enough to reveal the gaping holes in the plot.

At the Leland Center, there was time enough to consider all the holes and even to think up possible patches for them --- Delvena’s blackouts between scenes were interminable. Even worse, what happened between scenes in the dark was so fraught with danger and incident that it was much more compelling than what the actors did on stage when the lights went up again. From my seat in the third row stage right I glimpsed in the between-scenes gloom the menacing bulk of Moulton's Annie engaged in epic struggle with recalcitrant costumes, or frantically groping to collect an elusive prop from the pale hand of the assistant stage manager. Most perversely entertaining of all was watching poor David Geissler's imprisoned invalid trying to wrangle his bucking bed. After trundling his metal-framed rollaway to a new location during the blackout, Geissler was climbing back into the thing when suddenly the mechanism snapped and in spite of his effort to subdue it the bed buckled and its ends flew up to trap the hapless actor in a cage of metal springs. Talk about bedridden!

With such mishaps to handicap them, Geissler and Moulton would have to be Garrick and Duse to regain audience credibility. They aren't. Geissler came off best when he was playing pain. There was real anguish in the way he fell to the floor or dragged himself around the stage. Another successful note was a kind of improvisatory worry: an "O-my-God-what-next?". Of course, considering that the scenery and props -- which included a wicked knife, a blazing brazier, and a chainsaw-- seemed to be out of control and dangerous, Geissler's worry may not have been acting. Missing from the performance was any real disgust or terror from Sheldon, or a castratee's murderous rage that only revenge will satisfy.

Moulton did Annie's spot or two of murderous rage quite well, and although the actress's jumping up and down with glee was way over the top, some of her child-like moments of delight were fine. However, since Moulton couldn't find a way to meld Annie's sadism and vulnerability into a characterization, it isn't surprising that her Annie and Greissler's Paul couldn't find a convincing through-line for the play. The one suggested by the synopsis -- that Annie is a monster created by Paul when he fed her perverse fantasies with his bad writing -- is not used in King's novel. The novel's strategy is to punish Sheldon while projecting the worst of him onto his antagonist, so that lovingly detailed violence seems justified. "Misery" might have been about a boy's struggle to free himself from the seductive/sadistic toils of a Bad Mother. But although King's Sheldon is a despicable man, he is an adult in comparison to "stupid" Annie. Annie isn't the all-powerful monster who lurks in every mother, the one who takes charge frequently enough to make many a childhood hell. Annie is limned by King as specifically and literally that rarest of criminals, a female serial killer. In story terms she is simply a "psycho", a nightmare figure patched together from the author's inchoate fears.

In spite of the company's stated intention -- like Goldman's in his script for the movie-- to shape the action of the play as an artist's "learning experience", in Delvena's production the scenes remain merely illustrative, a series of symptoms. The company might have had better luck going along with Simon Moore's take on the material. The adapter implies in an epilogue that the whole thing may be Paul's drug-induced psychosis, inspired by the author's experience as a helpless patient in the hands of a nasty nurse while he was in hospital recovering from the injuries he suffered when he crashed his car. This would still mean an evening spent dealing with garbage, but at least it would throw the focus from the quality of the garbage to the workings of the mind that created it.