A di­a­bol­i­cal thrill ride with smarts and wit

‘The Devil’s Wife’ at the Sky­light is a thought-pro­vok­ing, en­ter­tain­ing de­but.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By Philip Bran­des cal­en­dar@la­times.com

It wouldn’t be the first time a reck­less mar­riage led straight to hell. Rarely, how­ever, has a spouse — how­ever de­monic — turned out to be lit­er­ally Satan. Which some­what raises the stakes for three sis­ters hop­ing a mys­te­ri­ous suitor will res­cue them from des­per­ate fi­nan­cial straits in “The Devil’s Wife” at the Sky­light Theatre.

Loosely adapted from an an­cient Ital­ian folk tale, pro­lific lo­cal play­wright Tom Ja­cob­son’s de­light­fully creepy new post­mod­ern fable makes an en­ter­tain­ing and thought-pro­vok­ing de­but, de­spite pil­ing on a few more lay­ers of self-aware meta­physics than its spare mythic un­der­pin­nings can ide­ally sup­port.

Direc­tor Eric Hoff sit­u­ates the story in an am­bigu­ous but vaguely Span­ishAmer­i­can Gothic set­ting that stylishly befits Ja­cob­son’s whim­si­cal mashup of fairy-tale tropes and mod­ern sen­si­bil­i­ties. As in the orig­i­nal leg­end, the Prince of Dark­ness (Everette Wallin) suc­ces­sively woos three sis­ters in the guise of Ni­co­las Mastema, a wealthy, suavely se­duc­tive lawyer who prom­ises to sal­vage their en­dan­gered fam­ily es­tate if one of them will marry him.

The only catch: His bride must never open the door to his cel­lar, which re­port­edly of­fers that which each vis­i­tor most de­sires. Oh, and there’s a cu­ri­ous busi­ness in­volv­ing a wooden staff be­queathed by the sis­ters’ late father that Ni­co­las seems way too ea­ger to ac­quire.

Nat­u­rally, the temp­ta­tion to cross the for­bid­den thresh­old proves im­pos­si­ble to re­sist, first for the beau­ti­ful but haugh­tily in­se­cure Bonita (Mariel Neto), then for the sweet-tem­pered sex­pot, Dulce (Alana Di­etze). It’s left to the brainy Sofia (Caro Zeller) to try to out­wit Ni­co­las with a strat­egy that ul­ti­mately pits heaven against hell.

The sis­ters’ strong per­son­al­i­ties and mo­tives are clearly rep­re­sented, though the char­ac­ters rarely ven­ture be­yond their broadly sketched archetypes. In the more nu­anced cen­tral per­for­mance, Wallin in­vests the charm­ingly dev­il­ish Ni­co­las with un­ex­pected ro­man­tic long­ing and ex­is­ten­tial depth, while also bring­ing pitch-per­fect comic tim­ing to his sec­ondary role as Mastema’s stooped, bearded ser­vant (whose know­ing smirk con­ceals yet an­other se­cret iden­tity).

Ja­cob­son’s sig­na­ture in­tel­li­gence and wit are never in short sup­ply, and run­ning a lit­tle more than an hour the play el­e­gantly poses an ever-deep­en­ing vol­ley of so­phis­ti­cated the­o­log­i­cal and philo­soph­i­cal ques­tions.

The di­a­logue’s styl­ized, idio­syn­cratic flour­ishes — in par­tic­u­lar, a height­ened con­tem­po­rary spin on the story’s un­der­ly­ing sub­text of fe­male em­pow­er­ment — don’t al­ways mesh with the fram­ing con­ceit of a tra­di­tional folk tale whose in­di­vid­ual con­tours have been bur­nished away through count­less retellings.

Nev­er­the­less, “The Devil’s Wife” is a smart, sat­is­fy­ing thrill ride with a unique su­per­nat­u­rally tinged cau­tion against de­pend­ing on the kind­ness of strangers.

Ed Krieger

SATAN (Everette Wallin) courts three sis­ters (Mariel Neto, left, Caro Zeller and Alana Di­etze).

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