Nearly every artist who's had a bad review has a revenge fantasy about critics. In "Panic," Joseph Goodrich's Hitchcockian murder mystery, the fantasy plays out in an orgiastic scene that moves from room to balcony to room.

It's a bit much, if you ask me, in director Carin Bratlie's physically and psychically gripping production that opened over the weekend at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul. Bratlie has delivered a well-executed mystery that moves with the precise timing of a Swiss clock.

There are at least three ways to die in "Panic" -- by gun, by knife and by strangulation. All come into play in a narrative that seems straightforward enough: Well-known American director Henry Lockwood (Stephen D'Ambrose in a very fine performance), is in Paris for the premiere of his latest movie, shot a year earlier. His base is a luxury hotel suite that he shares with his frail wife, Emma (Barbara Kingsley). He also has brought along his zealously protective secretary, Miriam Stockton (Jen Maren).

One night, when Lockwood is out, a mysterious woman steals into the suite, threatening to kill Miriam or jump off the balcony. The secretary saves her, only to hear the woman, Liliane Bernard (Heidi Fellner), allege that Lockwood raped her a year ago while filming his latest feature, where she played a part. She claims she can prove her accustation, and she wants redress in the form of money.

Even though "Panic" won the 2008 Edgar Allan Poe Award for best play from the Mystery Writers of America, it can still be edited. There's a scene in the first act that drags a little as reporter Alain Duplay (Garry Geiken) tapes an interview with Lockwood.

Otherwise, from Kirby Moore's handsome set design to Michael Kittel's lighting, "Panic" is a winner. The smart, loyal American secretary is the hero, and Maren plays her with reserves of physical and intellectual strength. It helps that the actor is tall and solid, and that she signals her intelligence with her eyes and a tone that shows a sharp mind at work.

The casting is largely faultless. Kingsley invests Emma with moral strength, even as she toddles around with a cane. Geiken's Alain is smarmy and ingratiating, but not too unctuous. Fellner's Liliane is an international woman of mystery whose secrets we want to know.

The foreign accents, which sometimes wax and wane with actors in other shows, are fairly steady in this production, which means we can focus on the characters.

Its subject might be murder, but "Panic" is a show that's about thrills. Bratlie's staging, with this swell cast, hits the right buttons.

Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390