"Child's Play" was one of the most extraordinary mystery thrillers produced on Broadway in 1970. Since mine is the only review of this movie, produced as was the play by David Merrick, but directed by Sidney Lumet of film fame and not Joseph Hardy, who won the Tony for Best Director on Broadway. The play starred Fritz Weaver, Pat Hingle, and Ken Howard in roles taken in the film by James Mason, Robert Preston and Beau Bridges. In addition to director Joe Hardy, Fritz Weaver won the tony for Best Actor and Ken Howard for Best Supporting Actor. Curiously and unfairly in my opinion, based on seeing the play nearly a dozen times, Pat Hingle crafted a magnificently open, fiendishly sly characterization without which Fritz Weaver would have had nothing to play off. Their stage chemistry is the stuff of legend.
Unfortunately, movies want stars; movies expect rewrites to dumb down intellect, to objectify evil as violence, and to play to an audience with television attention span. So for stars we get James Mason, a fine actor who would no doubt have been excellent on stage with an actor of Pat Hingle's nuance, Robert Preston, the original Broadway Music Man who knows exactly how to translate his star power from stage to screen, and alas Beau Bridges as a pea-green imitation of Ken Howard's representation of the new teacher positioned midway between the boys and the teachers in a Catholic School; and Sidney Lumet, directing for mood rather than horror.
I would have to write "spoiler" all over this review to tell you anything about the plot except what the NY Times Critic, Mel Gussow, wrote in his NY Times's obituary for the author, Robert Marasco:
''Child's Play,'' an eerie melodrama about incidents of evil in a Roman Catholic boys' school, was a surprise success in 1970. Produced by David Merrick, it ran for 343 performances. Leading the cast were Fritz Weaver, Ken Howard, Pat Hingle and David Rounds. Both Mr. Weaver and Mr. Howard won Tony awards, as did Joseph Hardy for his direction and Jo Mielziner for the lighting and Gothic set design. Mr. Merrick subsequently produced the film version of the play, directed by Sidney Lumet and starring James Mason and Robert Preston.
"Mr. Marasco was born in the Bronx and graduated from Regis High School in Manhattan and Fordham University. He was a classical scholar and before writing the play taught Latin, Greek and English at Regis. When ''Child's Play'' was produced, he refused to reveal the name of his school because he thought that theatergoers would think the work was based on reality. It was, he said, fiction.
"In an interview, he said that the idea came from two sources: a newspaper clipping ''about a teacher who gave his kids some work to do and then jumped out of a classroom window'' and the film ''Torment'' (written by Ingmar Bergman), in which there was ''a sadistic Latin teacher.'' Originally titled ''The Dark,'' the play was scheduled to be directed by Harold Prince. After Mr. Prince dropped his option, Mr. Merrick signed the unknown playwright.
"When the author and his director met, Mr. Hardy asked him what his aim was in writing the play. Mr. Marasco said that it was to ''scare the hell out of everybody.'' Mr. Hardy said, ''You're on.'' Guided by the director, the author rewrote half the play, including the ending. In fact, there were so many changes that the production itself became a cliffhanger. The reviews, however, were generally positive. In his review in The New York Times, Clive Barnes said it was ''a wonderfully powerful melodrama that will thrill audiences for a long time to come.''
The reception accorded the film was very subdued. The great power, atmosphere, pervasive fear, and mind-bending question "What's going on here?" were all watered down, and with Beau Bridges carrying an important part for the plot, the almost tanks. James Mason had no crackle or spark in the part's virtually hysterical paranoia, Robert Preston seemed to be enchanting and do wonderfully UNLESS or until you know the part he was playing with such big-screen heroics, as contrasted to Pat Hingle's far more realistic Roman Catholic High School Teacher who also coaches sports. Preston never gives a bad performance; he makes it seem as if such a thing is simply impossible. But he does not always do full justice to the parts he plays, and this is one of those instances. Please do not misunderstand: you will really love this thriller, as a thriller, and hunt high and low for a copy of the movie which now blessedly is available. But if you think there COULD be more; especially if you are a budding stage director willing to read the original script, then you will see what DYNAMITE this play is, why it ran a full year on Broadway (which is phenomenal for a non-musical), why three of its principals won the Tony . . . and why I'm mad as hell Merrick did not go with Fritz Weaver, Pat Hingle and Ken Howard for the film. But it's simple: do you know any of those names? Weaver and Hingle were two of the greatest stage actors of their day, but not bankable for Hollywood.