by Michael Bowen & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & hat's it like to feel paranoid, to really feel that everyone around is teamed up against you? And what's it like then to witness proof that you might be wrong? Soon you're paranoid about being paranoid.

Action that gets into audience members' heads -- a comedic thriller that strews guffaws and chills among its listeners -- a play that keeps us on the edge of suspense, never sure what terrible thing might happen next ... that would be a really gripping play.

Peter Colley's I'll Be Back Before Midnight (at the Civic through Feb. 4) isn't that play. And director Wes Deitrick's production doesn't do much to revitalize this turkey, which should have had its neck wrenched before being allowed to waddle around the barnyard. While there are a few bright spots that show up during the abysmal darkness of Midnight, the Civic production is mostly tone-deaf -- a collection of misjudged, unfrightening and just plain ludicrous moments.

This is the kind of script that calls for characters to commit acts of violence and then cower at the thought of ... placing a phone call. It's a dark and stormy night, you see. The curtains are drawn, the window locked. But somehow -- who knows how? -- once, then twice ... really creepy things have come through the window. So naturally, what does our heroine do when unearthly sounds start to emanate again from outside? She goes over to the window and draws the curtains. Yeah, that'll keep 'em out.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & B & lt;/span & ack Before Midnight, in its best moments, is involving because it tries to turn tables on us continually: Is the heroine deluded and laughably weak, or can she stand up for herself while maintaining a firm grip on reality?

Jan, after all, is emotionally fragile, and Angie Dierdorff Petro conveys that through crossed arms and slumped shoulders. She's up against the creepy farmer next door (Ron Ford), a bossy and devious sister-in-law, Laura (Heather Swanstrom), and ... can she even trust her own husband (Dave Rideout)?

With all the counter-plotting and paranoia going on, however, the cast resorts to indicating excessively. Petro keeps crossing her arms and slumping her shoulders. As for Rideout, there are ways to convey submissiveness without cowering and lunging away to the far side of the sofa.

Conversely, in an example of underplaying, Swanstrom wastes Laura's grandiose first entrance. Vocally underwhelming, fiddling through some stage business, she could have come on like a dominatrix and instead seems simply out of sorts. As the evening wears on, at least, Swanstrom increases the malevolence in her evil sister-in-law characterization.

Ford fares best. After a career in bloody horror movies, he's got the creepy, drunken dirty-old-man act down. Whether in overalls or a polka dot tie, his hick slathers over the details of gory crimes and the bodies of the women he holds in contempt. Ford is asked to enact bad slasher-film antics later on, but that's Colley's fault.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & D & lt;/span & eitrick directs to set up suspense pretty well; it's not his fault that some early stage business between the husband and the weirdo farmer practically gives away the plot. And Colley's script, for all its reputed meticulousness about staging the special effects just so, tends to point fingers at the source of the upcoming screams so that -- when the frightful stuff does finally appear -- all the menace has drained away. There are scarier episodes of Scooby Doo.

The well-mixed sound effects are credited to Charles Mix. (Really.) And the ominous drone, the echoing heartbeat, those indistinct but unsettling scratching noises really were among the best aspects of this production.

With shadows flickering on the staircase, Peter Hardie's set and Maureen Purdy's lights evoke the right kind of remote-house-out-in-the-country feel, with lots of hatchets and dead birds on the walls to hint at the ax murderer who's behind you right now!

Just fooling. Actually, much of the opening-night audience met this show's supposedly creepy and startling moments with that-was-dumb laughter. (When your thriller is producing not thrills but chuckles ... not a good sign.)

That's because comedic thrillers like Back Before Midnight have a basic problem: First we're supposed to laugh at these characters, then we're supposed to be terrified for their well-being. But that gives us the giggles, not goose bumps.

But then what about all the people who liked this show? (At the opening-night curtain call, much of the audience stood to applaud.) What if I'm wrong? What if it's all a plot to get me to think that Midnight is a bad play when actually it's very good?

Maybe I'm losing my mind. I'm all alone in this office, after all, typing my review, and ... Maybe the audience was planted, and the actors were just pretending to be bad. Maybe I'm hallucinating, and I only think that Midnight is a bad play.

Nah, just kidding. It really is bad.

Golden Harvest: Flour Sacks from the Permanent Collection @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

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