Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Highsmith is best known for writing Strangers on a Train, which was turned into a successful Alfred Hitchcock film, and the series of crime novels which featured the character Tom Ripley, including "The Talented Mr. Ripley." Though born in the United States, Highsmith lived her later years as a recluse in Switzerland. Murray-Smith's play is set toward the end of Highsmith's life when a young associate of her publisher arrives at her Swiss home to attempt to convince her to write one final Ripley novel. The manipulative and bitter Highsmith, who basically hated everyone and everything, has the upper hand in the tense negotiations, but the cat and mouse game this duo plays finds the roles constantly switching and the line between fact and fiction a very blurry one.
The playwright weaves several interesting topics throughout the piece, and incorporates elements of Highsmith's eccentric life to help the audience better understand her views and see how she came to be a loner living in the Swiss Alps. We learn how her unhappy childhood and shortcomings in her early life helped make her a stronger person and influenced her writing style and how her disappointment with the literary world in America was the catalyst for her move to Europe. Murray-Smith also incorporates facts of other artists in the dialogue to help see how the things that happen in an artist's life can greatly influence their work. In addition, we get a firm understanding of how Highsmith closely identifies with her famous character, Ripley.
The play has a few distinct sections, but the long first segment, which includes the setup of the plot and introduction of the characters, has a repetitive tone that doesn't quite pull you into the story. First, Highsmith belittles Edward or a specific segment of the world: Catholics, blacks, Jews, and even several successful white male American authors. Then, Edward talks about how great Highsmith is and attempts to convince her how a new Ripley book would be good for both her and the publishing house. Then, that exchange is repeated numerous times. While it works well to frame Highsmith as a loner with highly opinionated views, the repetitive nature and a mannered tone are somewhat sluggish. It doesn't have much momentum, which a good thriller clearly needs. There is also a lack of a true sense of danger. It is only in the last segment when there is a distinct change in tone that the play truly comes alive.
Suarez has no problem evoking the condescending and highly opinionated nature of Highsmith with a powerful performance and dialogue full of fire. Murray-Smith's script puts a nonstop barrage of nasty, negative, racist and bigoted opinions into Highsmith's mouth, which is based on fact, and Suarez is adept at delivering them with venom. From Suarez's firm delivery, she clearly shows that words are Highsmith's weapon of choice. As Edward, the young publishing house worker, Joshua Vern is equally skilled in portraying a fanboy who is out to prove himself and can't believe the situation he is inconversing with and even partially collaborating with the famous novelist. When the plot shifts toward the end of the play, both Suarez and Vern's chameleon-like acting abilities flex and morph before our eyes to deliver an ending with both a quiet solitude and a biting sting.
Director Brad Allen does a fairly good job in making sure his actors balance the changing shifts in their characters successfully. His blocking works well to show the intricate dance the hunter and the hunted exhibit in a good thriller, and the small set provides an appropriate sense of intimacy as well as an abundance of weapons of many shapes and sizes to display Highsmith's obsession with torture devices.
While the plot device that Murray-Smith has created is interesting, and her play explores some provocative themes, the static tone in the first half gets the drama off to a rocky start. Fortunately, two skilled performers are at the helm, and they are able to steer this ship slowly to a thrilling conclusion.
Switzerland at Theatre Artists Studio runs through November 5th, 2017, with performances at 4848 East Cactus Road in Scottsdale AZ. Tickets are on sale at www.TheStudioPHX.org and by calling 602-765-0120.
Director: Brad Allen