BY BRUCE APAR
When Bruce The Blog Watches… People Act!
Hudson Stage Company Presents
New York Premiere of
By Joanna Murray-Smith
Directed by Dan Foster
Executive Produced by Denise Bessette & Olivia Sklar
Through May 5, 2018 (weekends)
Whippoorwill Hall Theatre at North Castle Library
Armonk, New York 10504
Order Tickets on Website
The riveting drama Switzerland, now playing at Hudson Stage in Armonk through May 5, is a “two-hander.” That’s theater lingo for a play with two actors. If there seems to be more than two characters on stage in this novel idea for a drama, it’s a testament to actors Peggy J. Scott and Daniel Petzold, and to playwright Joanna Murray-Smith.
The trio brings to life a captivating conceit inspired by real-life crime writer Patricia Highsmith, who was quite a character in her own right. If her name isn’t instantly familiar, it’s likely two of her celebrated works are: The Talented Mr. Ripley was adapted into a Hollywood hit movie starring Matt Damon, and Strangers on a Train is an Alfred Hitchcock classic.
It’s the fictional character of Tom Ripley and the cynical character of Patricia Highsmith that animate the imagination of Ms. Murray-Smith in Switzerland.
Living in Switzerland in the mid-1990s as an American expatriate, the writer, played deliciously by Peggy J. Scott, is visited by a young, ambitious and boyishly charming emissary by the name of Edward Ridgeway, a junior executive at her New York publisher.
His daunting mission is to convince the flamboyantly disagreeable Ms. Highsmith – who drinks like a fish and smokes like a chimney all the live-long day – to sign a contract for just one more Ripley book.
At first blush, the irascible writer is not interested in revisiting Mr. Ripley and his murderous, identity-thieving ways. She forever is on a rampage, riding her high horse and giving young Mr. Ridgeway all kinds of grief, laden with lectures about the fallacy of happiness and the shallowness of American culture, American writers, and Americans in general. She is brazenly anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, anti-Latino, anti-Tom Wolfe, and anti-Whaddya got?
THE MERRY MISANTHROPE
Fueled by the playwright’s sharp dialogue, Ms. Highsmith is portrayed as a merry misanthrope who backs up her withering view of humanity with sharply etched observations on the human condition that cause us to question our own worldview. Can she possibly be on to something we’d rather not entertain?
“Young people start out confident,” the author declaims, “because they’re deluded. Then life takes the wind out of their sails.” Cynical, but not necessarily untrue.
If the author has difficulty navigating the real world – where so much offends her ragged sensibilities – it’s because she wasn’t able to create that world to suit her own indulgences, as she does on the page. Those indulgences are rooted in a macabre fascination with the furtive evil she believes lurks in each one of us. Of course, that doesn’t mean she also can’t love Broadway show tunes. Just don’t mention “Annie” to her.
Peggy J. Scott fully embodies the prickly personality that Ms. Highsmith was known for. She’s like a porcupine who shoots needles when you get within 100 feet of her, or when you say something she can shoot down with deadly aim. At the same time, Ms. Scott’s beautifully modulated performance is a study in understatement that is delightful to experience.
Despite his prey’s resistance to signing on the dotted line, Mr. Ridgeway presses on with the purposefulness of a big-game hunter, using guile to lure her into signing the book contract. Soon, they are collaborating on a new Ripley adventure of murder and mayhem.
THE WRITER AS SWITZERLAND
Ms. Highsmith makes clear to young Edward that she doesn’t pass judgment on even a morally bankrupt creation like Tom Ripley. Her authorial role is one of neutrality – like the neutral country of Switzerland: She presents the character and leaves it to the reader to decide if the character’s actions are reprehensible or defensible, psychopathic or empathetic.
It’s hard for the viewer to know what to make of Mr. Ridgeway. On the surface, he seems almost too uncomplicated. That’s the first clue there must be more to him than meets the eye. We are surprised when he reveals the same copious knowledge of antique U.S. battle weaponry as his host. She has on proud display in her Swiss chalet a Confederate sword, a Civil War Bowie knife, and a Colt. 45 double-action revolver, among other artifacts.
The more we learn about Edward Ridgeway, mostly through Ms. Highsmith correctly intuiting his family background, the more we wonder what he’s really about.
Our curiosity about Edward is heightened by his wardrobe progression, which grows more sophisticated with each change of outfits. He enters in weekend-casual duds and, in the final scene, wears an ensemble out of the pages of Town and Country that screams savoir faire. It’s as if he’s going from cocoon to butterfly before our eyes.
BECOMING A NEW MAN
That’s his exterior. Edward’s interior transformation is so subtle and smoothly played by Mr. Petzold that we mostly notice it in hindsight, not while it’s occurring, which is the mark of a consummately skilled actor.
Ms. Highsmith strikes a bargain with Edward. If he can conjure a credibly compelling way to kill off Ripley’s victim d’jour, she will sign the contract for the book. It’s as if she is wrangling him to do her plotting for her.
Meanwhile, the playwright is up to her own bit of plotting chicanery, the outcome of which I didn’t anticipate fully until it arrived in the final moments of this fun exercise in subtle audience manipulation.
Ms. Murray-Smith leaves hints along the way, like small stones pointing a path to the climax. That makes for a diverting and decidedly different theater experience.
What’s not different about any Hudson Stage production is the quality of the acting, with both actors members of Actors Equity, the professional theatrical union. Also up to the Hudson Stage’s high standards is the stunning, Broadway-quality set design. This time, though, producers Denise Bessette, Olivia Sklar and director Dan Foster have outdone themselves.
A SUMPTUOUS SET
Designed by by James J. Fenton, the sumptuous set uses every inch of the spacious proscenium stage at North Castle Library’s Whippoorwill Theater.
Positioned on a diagonal axis instead of square to the audience, the set depicts Patricia Highsmith’s Swiss residence in high style, a slotted wood interior, accented by a fireplace and levelored picture windows with a view toward the Alps.
The resulting audience perspective is that we’re sitting in a far corner of her living space as the action unfolds, as if the theatrical fourth wall has been removed.
Switzerland is at the Whippoorwill Theater in Armonk’s North Castle Library only on weekends, through Saturday, May 5. For ticket information, visit HudsonStage.com or call (800) 838-3006.
While you’re in Armonk, take advantage of its culinary bounty by dining at one of the tony town’s many appealing restaurants. You can’t go wrong with Fortina, known for its celebrated pizza.
ADDITIONAL TECHNICAL CREDITS
Lighting by Andrew Gmoser
Costumes by Charlotte Palmer-Lane
Original Music & Sound by Garrett Hood
Stage Managed by Helen Irene Muller
Bruce “The Blog” Apar promotes local businesses, organizations, events and people through public relations agency APAR PR. He also is an actor, a community volunteer, and a contributor to several periodicals. Follow him as Bruce The Blog on social media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 914.275.6887.