Night of January 16th is a courtroom drama written by philosopher and author Ayn Rand, whose purpose in writing the play was more to advance her musings than to concoct a well-structured narrative with sympathetic characters. Later in life, Rand found the novel form more conducive to the expression of her ideas. Her popular novels Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead were more successful in conveying her nostrums about the noble achiever at odds with society, responsible only to herself or himself.
Written in the early 1930s when she worked in wardrobe for RKO Studios, Night of January 16th (originally titled Penthouse Legend) is reminiscent of Hollywood's early B-movies with its two-dimensional, cardboard-cutout versions of high-society types, big-business tycoons and underworld lowlifes. There are plot twists aplenty, and almost two dozen characters come and go in Rand's potboiler, but the final results of this unconvincing crime story are muddled and theatrically inelegant.
As the story and the trial opens, evidence seems to be piling up against Karen Andre (Morgan Matos) for the murder of her employer and lover, Bjorn Faulkner, wealthy capitalist, scoundrel and playboy. Yet, as more witnesses come forward, the question of Faulkner's death becomes more obscured. Was he murdered or was it suicide? Did he truly love his new young wife, Nancy (Brittany Powell), or was he using her money to bail himself out of debt? Was the body found on the street in front of Faulkner's penthouse actually his, or was he spirited away by his father-in-law, John Graham Whitfield (Steve Drucker), only to be killed later and left in a New Jersey marsh?
In this Valencia Community College student-cast production, directed by Chris Jorie, homage is paid to the period of the 1930s via both Lathrus Godwin's appropriate costumes and Jeremy Kaminsky's Art Deco set. Yet, except for John Minbiole's nicely underplayed portrayal of defense attorney Stevens, many in the young cast seem lost in their roles. If only the actors could have watched some of those black-and-white thrillers in an attempt to match their impersonations to the kinds of stock characters that were the staple of the early movie studios. Then perhaps Powell might have played the widow Nancy as soft and vulnerable, a grieving bride looking for sympathy, rather than a haughty and imperious society matron. Or perhaps Luis Torres might have played gangster Larry Reagan with less anger and more suave self-possession.
In an attempt to raise the stakes of the drama, a dozen folks from the crowd are plucked from their seats to serve as the jury for the proceedings. In the final minute, they render their decision on the devoted but hapless secretary. By this time, however, Andre's guilt or innocence is hardly of interest to an audience that has been given too much conflicting information to be able to make any sense of it at all.
With little else to look at besides lawyers posturing and witnesses testifying, the viewers needed to see profound moral issues at stake, characters caught up in a sympathetic and all-consuming drama, or at least an unambiguous and satisfying conclusion. Night of January 16th has none of these.