The Thriller Test

Well, Anna in the Tropics has opened on Broadway, and with it the increasingly ridiculous acting style of at least one member of the cast. I won’t name names (it’s not Mr. Smits or Ms. Lopez, my current favorites), but it made me realize: this actor could come on stage as Count Dracula and it probably wouldn’t make a noticable difference in the staging. If, in the script, this character was to be killed, come back to life as a zombie, and begin to moonwalk across the stage, an audience just might accept it.

I call this “The Thriller Test.” Think of it as a follow-up to the Rocky Horror Bomb, which also highlights the fusion of horror and humor as a point of dramatic failure. If your character does not pass the Thriller test, if this character could conceivably be replaced by one of Michael Jackson’s backup dancers, you may want to do some rewriting. Let’s look at this classic example:

Doctor Come on, Blanche; you’re crazy. We’re taking you to the sanitarium.

Blanche I have always depended on the kindness of strangers’…BRRRAAIINNNS….

Doctor What?

Blanche Uh, nothing. Come on; let’s go.

(The DOCTOR puts his arm around BLANCHE. They begin to walk upstage. The play freezes and BLANCHE turns around, her eyes a bright, feline yellow. She smiles wickedly as VINCENT PRICE begins to laugh wildly.)

See? Not much different from the original Tennessee Williams. Admit it, if you were seeing the play for the first time, you’d believe in zombie Blanche, too. You believed it when James Bond went to New Orleans. And that’s a real problem for this classic play. If we believe Blanche can be a zombie, we’ll believe anything. But try this passage from Look Back in Anger:

(CLIFF reads the paper.)

Cliff Did you see this, Jimmy? It says—Jimmy?

(CLIFF looks up from his paper to find that JIMMY PORTER has become a hollow-eyed ZOMBIE! He begins to pivot and shuffle around the flat. After six minutes, he begins to menace the others.)

Helena Alison, we need to leave!

Alison No, I love my jolly super bear.

See, that would never work. Jimmy Porter would never let three lines of dialogue go by without inserting an essay of his own! Jimmy cannot be a zombie, and so he passes the Thriller test.

So keep this test in mind for your own work, and be wary of actors who will bring out the dancing zombie that may lie beneath an otherwise benign character. Run your plays through the Thriller test to make sure what happened to Nilo Cruz and Tennessee Williams doesn’t happen to you. Ola Ray will thank you.

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