An evil scheme with legs to stand on: Margaret Colin and Robert Cuccioli do the dirty work in 'Temporary Help.'

TEMPORARY HELP. By David Wiltse. With Chad Allen, Margaret Colin, Robert Cuccioli and William Prael. Set by Troy Hourie. Directed by Leslie L. Smith. At the Women's Project Theatre, 424 West 55th St. Tickets: $39.50 (212) 329-6200.

It's surprising we don't see more thrillers in the theater, because in a thriller the most important character is the audience, which in our narcissistic times you'd think would count for something.

In a conventional play, after all, you have to involve yourself in the characters. In a thriller the characters are pretexts to play with your emotions. They exist merely to give you a thrill.

This is pretty much the case with David Wiltse's "Temporary Help," which concerns a middle-aged but youngish-looking farm couple in rural Nebraska, the Strebers, who hire drifters, involve them in a shady financial maneuver and then make them disappear.

The play, in fact, begins with a gunshot, the Strebers' preferred method of dispatching their help. Whatever else its agricultural terrain affords, Nebraska apparently has a bumper crop of hunky drifters ripe for picking. One, in fact, pops up as soon as the Stebers bury their last.

Both having been abused as children, the Stebers play abusive games with their hired hands. They also play games with us.

Meanwhile, a local sheriff who has the hots for Faye Streber, suspects funny business, which means that all evening long you wonder who will be left alive. Since none of them is very appealing, the results are quite satisfying.

As Karl Streber, Robert Cuccioli shrewdly uses comedy to undercut the constant menace his character presents. He has also undercut his matinee idol looks. Perhaps from throwing his hair around so vigorously in "Jekyll and Hyde," his upper body seems overdeveloped, which gives him an ungainly look useful for the part.

Margaret Colin achieves an impressive balance between vulnerability and canniness as his compliant but resentful wife. Chad Allen (best known from "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman") brings a powerful neurotic edge to the drifter. William Prael has great strength as the sheriff.

Except for its ending, "Temporary Help" offers few surprises, but it has been skillfully acted, directed and designed.

Originally published on November 18, 2002

Backmoving.gif (10803 bytes)