March 10 2010 12:00 AM

Entertaining ’Watch’ looks at insecurities in post-9/11 world

After seeing “The Watch List” at Riverwalk Theatre, it is easy to tell playwright Eric Dawe is as big a fan of TV and film as he is of theater. His script, which clearly serves as an outlet for his own rhetorical questions about safety and liberty in a post 9/11 world, fits cleanly into the mold of a pulpy television thriller, strewn with “whodunit” plot twists and characters pulled from late-night cop dramas.

Formulaic though it may be, Dawe’s text is an entertaining and suspenseful melodrama with plenty of humor to break the constant tension. The first staged performance of his work, however, shows even the scriptwriter himself can have difficulty bringing his words to life.

The story revolves around a McCarthyish “watch list,” a product of a paranoid government that Dawe shows is just as effective in destroying innocent lives as it is saving them. Its most recent victim is Al’Hanah Fawaz ( Kristine Alexander), a young woman who was fired from the Civil Freedoms Group of America for showing up on the list. At the beginning of the play she is being reinstated and compensated for lost hours, but not before being interrogated by her boss, her boss’s assistant, her lawyer, and an FBI agent all within half an hour.

What happens next drives the rest of the plot past several red herrings before the final revelation enters with a bang.

Dawe and Rick Dethlefsen bring considerable intensity to their roles as Jordan Barnes and Donald Samson respectively. As the story’s central witnesses, both try to piece together the puzzle with the FBI agents and police. Dawe’s character is, not surprisingly, the most developed, an extension of his real self posing the most troubling and unanswerable questions of the play with the sincere panic of a truly scared father.

Dethlefsen is a treat to watch, prowling the stage like a panther, swiping at anyone who questions  him. Some of his most vicious attacks are aimed at Paige Dallon (Lindsay Palinsky), a steely young law graduate. acting as Fawaz’s attorney. Palinsky struts in her raised heels with purpose, but her reactions feel premeditated, which ultimately diffuses some of her intense confrontations.

Other strong performances come from Justin Banks as the eerily cool FBI agent Gabriel Sand, Jeff Magnuson as gravelvoiced, Tums-popping Jersey cop Steve Gandolini, and Heather Lenartson-Kluge as his savvy, sexy partner, Tara Patrick. The characters of Gandolini and Patrick feel lifted from a show like “NYPD Blue,” but Magnuson and Lenartson- Kluge are in on the joke, squeezing out all of the juice from their pulpy dialogue.

Bob Robinson and Richard Helder fill out the final agent roles as Mason Grant and Bryce Carlson, but their performances are as starched as their shirts. Part of this comes from Dawe’s direction, which never feels as confident as his writing.

All of the actors pace frequently to the two front corners of the thrust stage, fulfilling the need to fill the space. But only some of the moves feel character-driven while the rest create jumbled layers that frequently block the view of any audience members not seated in the center section.

Overall, ‘The Watch List’ should be commended for the achievement it is, five years in the making. The production may not be as polished as the script, but it’s only a few tweaks away from the final draft.

"The Watch List"

Riverwalk Theatre Dart Studio Black Box 228 Museum Dr. 8 p.m. Friday, March 12 and Saturday, March 13; 2 p.m. Sunday, March 15 $12 (517) 482-5700