In terms of tight, tense writing, Patrick Hamilton's Rope is a winsomely effective piece of work. At least as judged by the standards of 1929, when it was originally written and presented on Broadway (as Rope's End). However, the new revival of the show at the Zipper Theatre reveals that the once taut, edgy play, which inspired a taut, edgy (and somewhat transformed) film version from Alfred Hitchcock, now bears the quaint patina of silent-movie melodrama.
It's not just that the central duo, Brandon (Sam Trammell) and Granillo (Chandler Williams) is ostensibly gay, though Hamilton derives much of his implicit tension from the unstated nature of their relationship. (Director David Warren has literalized this, perhaps too much, by giving the two a lengthy, open-mouthed kiss in the first scene.) This story of the two Oxford undergrads, who strangle a classmate and hide his body in a chest that's central to a party they throw later that night, also requires that the shock of the deed itself be enough to sustain - for over two hours - an atmosphere so thick that you couldn't cut it with a cleaver.
Today, for better or worse, that jump is harder to make. One can see how, in 1929, this idea might have seemed scandalous, especially given the story's gay element. But today, the more uncomfortably visible features are the endless exposition-burdened opening minutes, an anti-war screed dropped indiscriminately into a discussion of a very different kind of killing (one can't help but wonder if this speech alone inspired this revival), and a droll collection of ornamental English archetypes that take up a lot of stage space and time, but never really do anything. (One, for example, is a butler who only briefly butles; another lives up to her "uncommunicative" description by speaking about 20 words - none of them important - during the whole play.)
In today's in-and-out-quick, budget-conscious theatre climate, this play would probably run an intermissionless 90 minutes (this one is nearly two and a half hours, spread across three acts) and be boiled down to its three essential characters, as part of the Less Is More philosophical school. But while playwrights through history, including into modern times, have proven the value of larger casts to place small stories in wider contexts, there's a reason Hamilton isn't listed among the ranks of Eugene O'Neill or Tennessee Williams: The only memorable moments he creates are between Brandon, Granillo, and Rupert Cadell (Zak Orth), the affected, semi-crippled veteran whose sharp eye and sharper mind make him an unexpectedly estimable foil for the two boys.
The play eventually thrives on the disquieting unease between the three, but that takes time to develop; we don't get to the meat of their confrontations until the second act. That's half an act too late given the lethargic staging that Warren provides the initial discussions between Brandon and Granillo, Rupert, two dandily social-stepping Brits just destined for each other (John Lavelle and Ginifer King, giving ideally bubbleheaded performances), and the murdered boy's father (Neil Vipond) and seldom-spoken aunt (Lois Markle, whose underutilization is the truly unforgivable crime here).
But once Rupert, Brandon, and Granillo begin their duel, you get a sense of the nail-biting excitement that probably gripped 1929 audiences from the opening scene. True, you'd get even more if Williams behaved more like a scared child drowning his fear in drink and less like a stoned English major pulling a frantic all-nighter, or if Orth unhinged more believably when his own morals are hilariously questioned at the apex of the trio's climactic showdown. But Trammell strikes all the right notes as a self-tarnishing golden boy, whose sense of right and wrong is developed in all the wrong ways.
Costume designer Gregory Gale has designed an impressive array of elegant outfits, which tend to bring out nuances of the supporting characters in ways that Hamilton couldn't. And James Youmans's scenic design, encompassing a barely-there living room loaded with attractive turn-of-the-century accents, highlights the high-versus-low class conflict that's an unspoken but vital aspect of the script.
Hamilton, though, ensured that his dramatic set pieces would trump those of any scenic designer; the arched-eyebrow immediacy of a chest containing a dead body being used as a dining table, for example, is hard to top. But as executed, that moment and many others in Rope have a ridiculous quality about them that challenges the play's effectiveness even as a period piece.
Yes, the subtlety with which Hamilton tells a story about an assault on the perceived heterosexist orthodoxy by two oppressed souls is a refreshing change from the relentlessly in-your-face theatre that's so common today. But in a year that also saw the Off-Broadway premiere of Thrill Me, a new two-man musical about the real Leopold and Loeb (on whom Brandon and Granillo were obviously based) more in line with modern dramatic expectations, it's hard to get too excited about this particular excavation of what's most charitably described as a modern theatrical relic.