Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995) was a misanthropic, alcoholic depressive known for writing psychological thrillers. Five decades of authorship spawned numerous short stories and twenty-two novels, five of which feature her most famous character, Tom Ripley. The Talented Mr. Ripley, also a film with Matt Damon, introduces a young, predominantly self-educated man of poor background and lofty aspirations who lies, steals, impersonates and kills to achieve the kind of life he thinks he deserves. Tom is so charming and sympathetic that characters and readers alike often unwittingly root for him.
Joanna Murray-Smith’s play hypothesizes a later-in-life meeting between Highsmith (Peggy J. Scott) and Edward (Daniel Petzold), a young representative of her publisher and a fan. As the author neither answers phones nor uses a computer, Edward flies to her home in Switzerland, tasked with convincing her to sign a contract for additional Ripley books. The last visiting lackey suffered a breakdown after contact and is now in counseling. This one is not, to say the least, welcome.
The terrific Set (James L. Fenton), some of which should be credited to the specifying playwright, features a room ‘decorated’ by Highsmith’s curetted collection of individually lit weapons. The roll-top desk, 1956 Olympia Deluxe typewriter, and shelf of LPs personalize a conservative, contemporary look of the time. Deb Gaoette’s Props are just right.
Lighting by Andrew Gmoser adds atmosphere and time of day, though I could’ve done without the exaggerated red scene.
The Sound of Music is playing. Apparently Highsmith has a weakness for musicals. Songs are intermittently used with calculated finesse.
“You’re late,” she snaps. “I know that because this is Switzerland.” Scott sits slouched in a chair, legs spread, and moves as we might imagine an unabashedly butch woman. Petzold stands tenuously testing the wind.
Edward’s reasonable approach is belittled on both business and personal levels. Seemingly ingenuous, he tries both florid flattery and the threat of literary obsolescence to no avail. The young man then reveals to Highsmith he knows she’s dying, i.e. time is of the essence. * “I’m not going quietly,” she responds.
When he says he “gets” her, instead of railing, the author draws out Edward on his own life. A tragedy he endured gives him “texture” = points in her eyes. Highsmith then shares a grisley snippet (chillingly true) of her own childhood creating the single out of character parenthesis in the piece.
Additional points are secured when he surprisingly shows detailed knowledge of guns. (Having boned up?) Highsmith practically salivates when she discusses violent means to death: “the ultimate human power.” Ensuing weapons comparison is like foreplay. He will be allowed to stay the night. “The guillotine hovers,” she warns, lest he feel complacent.
Has Edward brought the things she requested from New York? In fact, a suitcase holds items Highsmith deemed necessary. Its contents are wonderfully revealing of character. There are, of course, complaints. Goaded, she then begins what seems an extemporaneous story of Ripley (In the typewriter as well?) Her guest is asked, then challenged to contribute.
Switzerland at first seems like Edward’s articulated torture before murder. (Did the last publisher’s assistant wake to a knife at his throat?) As the play progresses, however, the visitor insidiously exerts himself. We’re made to wonder which participant will be the casualty. Murray-Smith never lets one rest on assumptions. Red herrings pepper her writing like a well seasoned meal. Even at the end, you’ll speculate on what actually occurred.
Dialogue is smart and character specific. Information is delivered, often indirectly, always with skill. This is one case when manipulation is a pleasure.
Garrett Hood’s Sound Design/ Music is too gothic for my taste. The piece is sufficiently clever to support less over the top implication.
Charlotte Palmer-Lane’ Costumes fit character like second skin.
*Highsmith died from a combination of aplastic anemia and lung cancer.
Photos by Rana Faure
Hudson Stage Company presents
Switzerland by Joanna Murray-Smith
Directed by Dan Foster
Through March 3, 2019