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Don’t Press the Up Button

by Michael Sommers, The New York Times

With best-selling mysteries like “Devil in a Blue Dress” among his more than three dozen books, Walter Mosley is a master of crime fiction who knows how to put his characters into tight, scary situations. In “Lift,” his new drama of suspense that begins performances on April 10 atCrossroads Theater Company in New Brunswick, the writer traps two strangers within an urban nightmare: Inside a damaged elevator that is stuck high up in a burning skyscraper.

Disturbing undertones of Sept. 11 aside, Mr. Mosley said his dramatic fiction was mostly about revealing the inner lives of the characters who are grappling with such terrors. “They are those average-looking people you see beside you every day who have interesting back stories that you wouldn’t ever suspect,” he said in a telephone interview from his home in Brooklyn.

In the case of the two corporate workers here, their personal revelations partly involve sex, addiction and racism. (They are black.) The title “Lift,” Mr. Mosley added, holds a double meaning — “lift as in another word for elevator and in people helping each other.” The man and the woman climb atop each other in their attempts to escape together in what one of them calls “a high-end casket.”

A relative newcomer to the theater at age 62, with two previous plays produced regionally, including “White Lilies,” a one-act that Crossroads presented last year, Mr. Mosley said he wrote “Lift” in 15 drafts that evolved over three months.

“I find that playwriting is the most challenging writing I can do,” he said.

“With a novel, you can rely on the reader’s mind to make up any details that you might lack. They can read it and then put it down for a while. But with a play, you have to keep people’s attention through dialogue, and that is very, very hard.”

A major challenge for Crossroads is fulfilling the requirements of this four-actor drama, which necessitates the physical simulation of an unstable elevator cab that is tilted precariously inside a smoky shaft, complete with explosions and falling debris.

“The elevator itself is a major character in the play,” said Marshall Jones III, the producing artistic director of Crossroads, who is staging the premiere.

Andrei Onegin, the set designer, suspends the semi-open cab about four feet above the stage, against a background of projected images that suggest both the cab’s initial ascent and the looming blue-and-gray-shaded elevator shaft around it.

Mr. Jones said Crossroads was already developing another piece with Mr. Mosley, whom he described as “a great storyteller.”

“He understands how to create compelling people and put them in extreme situations that lift the veil on their characters,” Mr. Jones added.

“Lift,” by Walter Mosley, April 10 to 25 at Crossroads Theater Company, 7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Tickets: $10 to $65. Information: crossroadstheatrecompany.org or (732) 545-8100.

Read the original article “Don’t Press the Up Button” on NYTimes.com: