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Temporary Help

Temporary Help literally starts off with a bang: the sound of a gunshot. When the lights go up, there is a corpse on the kitchen floor, wrapped in a bloody white sheet. The killers are Karl and Faye, a farm couple in rural Nebraska, and the victim is the latest in a line of hired hands to be knocked off in similar fashion. But there is no time for Karl and Faye to discuss their latest kill; the sheriff is knocking on the door, and they have to hide the body. As Faye flirts with the lawman in the living room, Karl stuffs the stiff beneath the sink. The sheriff leaves, after washing his hands, so the killers, for now, are safe. But they need to find new help.

If you haven't guessed by now, Temporary Help is a thriller, and a highly entertaining one at that. As such, it is a rarity. The suspense genre has been ceded nearly completely to the movies in recent years, because film directors have devices to set crowds into automatic tension: ominous underscoring, piped-in heartbeats and heavy breathing, cameras hand-held from a stalker's point of view. In the theater, a thriller has no such tricks at its disposal. Its twists and turns must all be in the writing, and its director must earn every gasp from the audience.

David Wiltse's script is a clever knot of intrigue and reversals--Deathtrap in the cornfields. Karl (Robert Cuccioli) and Faye (Margaret Colin), married for decades, are "wrapped around each other like two weeds choking each other to death." He is a wily sociopath with a violent temper; she has a masochistic streak and bad habits like drinking alone and sleeping around. Together they have been running a scam involving bad checks, cattle, and disappearing employees. But their uneasy equilibrium is thrown off by their latest hired hand Vincent (Chad Allen), a mercenary drifter who may or may not be a serial killer. Vincent, 25 and none too bright, has a tightly muscled body and blonde hair that is dirty in more ways than one. Faye thinks he is "sensitive" and begs Karl to let him live, but she has other motives than kindness in mind. Karl, not easily duped, has his eye on Vincent as well.

Effective thrillers are often described as taut, but Leslie L. Smith's direction of Temporary Help seduces the audience with its looseness. Wiltse's dialogue has the punch one expects from a thriller, with one or two sucker punches thrown in, but Smith never lets it go arch. His staging at the Women's Project Theater has a lived-in feel, starting with Troy Hourie's believably shabby set: a hodgepodge of browns and beiges with checkered paper on the walls and a patch of duct tape on Karl's favorite leather chair. The acting, on the whole, is similarly relaxed. Allen is artlessly unstable as Vincent, while Cuccioli, in what might be called the Billy Bob Thornton role, gives Karl a surface affability that make his other side all the more threatening. Colin, her tall frame slackened into a defeated slump, is especially compelling as the desperate Faye, seething with thwarted passions and loneliness. Together, the director and cast help ground Temporary Help's suspense in reality, and the result is good, dark fun. When I wasn't leaning back in pleasure, I was on the edge of my seat.

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