Thursday, February 14, 2019

166 (2018-2019): Review: SWITZERLAND (seen February 12, 2019)

“Believe It or Not”

Confession: I’ve never read a novel by Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995), bestselling American author of the Tom Ripley novels, about a homicidal impostor. Nor have I plunged into her other psychological thrillers, like Strangers on a Train. I’m familiar with her books only through the medium of film. So, seeing Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith’s Switzerland, in which Highsmith herself is one of the two characters, and in which the plot is inspired by her writing, and the dialogue concerns that writing, was perhaps not as enthralling for me as it might otherwise prove for Highsmith fans. (By an odd coincidence, there's an article in this week's New Yorker about Dan Mallory, author of the best-selling novel The Woman in the Window, whose relationship to the truth is reminiscent of Tom Ripley, and who is a Highsmith aficionado.)
Daniel Petzold, Peggy J. Scott. Photo: Rana Faure.
Originally produced in Sydney in 2014, Switzerland had its American premiere in Los Angeles in 2015, with Laura Linney as the considerably older Highsmith. The Hudson Stage Company’s production at 59E59 Theaters, directed by Dan Foster, was first seen last spring in Armonk, NY, with the same actors, Peggy J. Scott and Daniel Petzold.

The intermissionless, 90-minute play—which very vaguely brings to mind Deathtrap, Ira Levin’s 1978, hit murder mystery—imagines that, in 1995 (the year she died), Highsmith’s New York publisher has sent an ambitious, sexually ambiguous, young editor named Edward Ridgeway (Petzold) to Switzerland, where Highsmith lives in a modernistic, Alpine bunker (quite smartly designed by Ralph Fenton), surrounded by her collection of rare guns, knives, and swords, as well as an abundance of LP albums favoring Broadway musicals.
Peggy J. Scott, Daniel Petzold. Photo: Rana Faure.
His mission: to convince the reluctant author, who’s been in a literary funk, to sign a contract for a new Ripley novel. Edward’s youthful appearance, seeming nerdiness, and thorough knowledge of Highsmith’s oeuvre (which, for a cheap laugh, he mispronounces oovray) bely hidden motives that occasionally peep out through subtle changes of tone or expression.

Edward’s eager beaver urgency is counterpointed by Highsmith’s imperious, nasty, sarcastic, racist, antisemitic, misanthropic, and foulmouthed diatribes, including against such literary lights as Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, and Kurt Vonnegut. The publisher’s emissary before Edward was so distressed by her that he ended up in therapy.
Peggy J. Scott. Photo: Rana Faure.
She insults not only blacks and Jews but many others, spouting generalized assaults that embrace entire populations, including Americans, comments that seem at odds with her alleged literary genius. Then again, geniuses don’t always play by the rules. The play also reveals her as a lesbian, an alcoholic, and a lover of the show tunes on all those albums, like the ones we sometimes hear in Garrett Hood’s sound design.
Daniel Petzold. Photo: Rana Faure.
Living in Switzerland for so long has cut Patricia off from changes in American culture, requiring Edward to disabuse her outdated notions by informing her of things like faddish dietary trends (young women have switched from pie to romaine lettuce, and white bread is in decline). And, given our heroine’s nicotine habit, let’s not forget the drop-off in smoking.

There’s also a discussion about Highsmith’s dislike of email following the negative reaction to a decidedly unpleasant message she sent; the moment gets a laugh but, while it may be based on fact, it seems a bit anachronistic for 1995, given not only the technology’s recent introduction but the presence on Highsmith's desk of a typewriter where a computer might otherwise have been.

A sidebar on my frequent bugaboo, stage smoking: Highsmith, as the key art on the play’s program and ads reminds us, was a heavy smoker. As so often evident in current day acting, those who must smoke herbal tobacco on stage or screen, often don’t handle their cigarettes the way real smokers do nor inhale their content as if it were anything other than castor oil. Once having established that their character smokes, such actors can’t wait for the first opportunity to snuff out their cigarettes (or cigars, as the case may be). Neither actor here passes the tobacco bar. 

As the action proceeds, Edward, whose evolution is marked by look and attitude in each new scene, sets in motion a collaborative discussion with Highsmith about the plot for a new Ripley novel. He himself begins to assume a Ripleyesque persona, more than which spoiler etiquette prevents me from describing.

The premise of placing Highsmith in a situation mirroring her own writing is unquestionably provocative but it falls short of conviction. What few thrills exist come mainly from Hood’s scary sound effects and haunting original music, as well as Andrew Gmoser’s creepy lighting.
Daniel Petzold. Photo: Rana Faure.
The back and forth, cat and mouse, war and peace variations that mark the action, with the balance of power continually shifting, incorporate a bit too much literary discussion, although some of it, like that about a writer’s morality vis à vis that of her readers, is interesting. There are also too many one-liners that fail to get much of a comic rise. The surprise ending may or may not satisfy you, regardless of whether you’re a Highsmith follower. Given the setup, however, it’s necessary, which doesn’t mean it’s acceptable.
Daniel Petzold, Peggy J. Scott. Photo: Rana Faure.
Scott gives a perfectly reasonable portrayal of the mean-spirited novelist but her dismissive anger and cynicism too often seem the mask-like externals of a nice person playing wicked. Petzold makes a suitably innocuous cum dangerous partner.

Is Switzerland a nice play to visit? Perhaps, but only with reservations.

59E59 Theaters/Theater B
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through March 3