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KIND LADY, Pendulum Theatre Company, at the Athenaeum Theatre. This somewhat sadistic period play is Edward Chodorov's melodramatic 1935 adaptation of a mystery story by Hugh Walpole. Reclusive and entirely too trusting, the title character is a wealthy spinster, Mary Herries, who comes to regret her kindness to a penniless painter. Sheltered in Mary's lavish London town house, the scheming Henry Abbott eventually moves in his sex-crazed wife, a baby, a venal doctor, and three loathsome confederates. They proceed to drive Mary bonkers until an unconvincing reversal prevents them from robbing her blind.

Jeremy Wechsler's highly competent revival benefits from J. Michael Desper's lavishly appointed drawing room and Patti Roeder's period garb. But uncertain accents and overwrought performances mar the almost cartoonish villains, and many of Wechsler's 13-member ensemble seem wasted in make-work roles. Still, the characters are often cunningly drawn. Best are the moral opposites Mary--wonderfully warmhearted and savagely exploited in Jan Sodaro's performance--and David P. Bryson's Henry, a cheeky rascal of amazing impudence.

The play is fascinating as a relic and suspenseful enough to recall Gaslight and Sorry, Wrong Number--at least until its perfunctory ending. But this is also a conservative creation riddled with an almost pathological fear and hatred of the lower orders: Mary is condemned for showing charity to the needy. (By contrast J.B. Priestley's An Inspector Calls rises above its class bias.) Once the home-invading hostage takers in Kind Lady are dispatched, the audience can forget the Depression-era desperation that drove them to their dastardly deeds. --Lawrence Bommer

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