Actor's Express: ‘Albatross,' murder mystery by Atlantan Lee Nowell

It begins in Hitchcockian fashion. A beautiful blonde steps through the front door of her home dressed in mourning attire and a veiled chapeau that gives her an air of mystery. She and her husband have been to a funeral.

As lightning flashes outside and the woman nervously prepares dinner for her needling spouse, the neatness and normality of their lives will be shattered by revelations of a secret past. Murder and blackmail. Lies and deception. Panic and paranoia. In the long dark night that makes up Atlanta playwright Lee Nowell’s suspensefully calibrated “Albatross,” this troubled couple will dredge up sordid, perhaps criminal backstories that can no easier be buried and forgotten than their dead friend’s coffin.

In this Actor’s Express world premiere, Nowell delivers a juicy tingler that feels like a combination of a lurid tale by the superb Mississippi-born novelist Donna Tartt and one of Edward Albee’s brutal, booze-soaked intellectual cat-and-mouse games. The kind that can cause spouses to sprout claws and reveal their vicious killer instincts.

As this night of Scotch drinking and a little hair pulling ensues, the good wife Alice (Lane Carlock) and the handsome jerk Jim (Brian Kurlander) will engage in a game of psychological manipulation that proves the old Hitchcockian adage that the suggestion of terror is more effective than the thing itself. The cake that Alice has made and displayed under a pretty glass dome will surely be eaten and savored. But what about the knife that cuts it?

From a ladder that appears mysteriously in the trees outside the couple’s dining room window to the lights that seem to go dimmer and brighter as if controlled by some invisible hand, director Freddie Ashley and his design team (particularly scenic designer Philip Male) exact delicate tensions from Nowell’s tangle of mysteries. It’s an elegant, smartly staged,  finely acted play about power shifts, secret agendas and money.

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Seems that Alice and Jim’s dearly departed but messy friend Vera has left them a $5 million insurance police. But why? And was Vera’s death a murder or a suicide? If it was a suicide, the insurance company won’t pay. If it was murder, whodunit?

Nowell, who is married to mystery writer and playwright Phillip DePoy, apparently loves a good thriller, and she is working in a literary tradition continuum that goes from Agatha Christie to Anthony Shaffer (“Sleuth”). What’s interesting about this story, what may cause you to stop over your morning coffee and ponder what really happened, is the way Alice reveals a secret, only to have it topped by Jim. But what is true and what is purely made up? Much is at stake here, and much will be sorted through before the couple can make nice and get on with their lives.

Nowell is on to something intriguing here, and almost gets it, but there’s a forced, carefully rehearsed, almost gimmicky feeling to the structure. Whether truth or lies, the stories that emerge from Alice and Jim ultimately aren’t all that titillating. “Albatross” ends up being a pretty puzzle, but in the end the audience may feel a tad more slighted than riveted.

Theater review

“Albatross”

Grade: B-

8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays. 5 p.m. Sundays. (2 p.m. Nov. 7). Through Nov. 20. $25-$32. Actor’s Express, 887 West Marietta St. N.W., Suite J-107. Atlanta. 404-607-7469, actorsexpress.com

Bottom line: Smart-looking puzzle never quite snaps into place.

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