By Ron Fassler
The New York City premiere of Joanna Murray-Smith’s Switzerland arrived at the 59E59 Theaters last night, in a production first produced by the Hudson Stage Company, Westchester County’s premier, professional theater. Bringing this production intact from Armonk to the Upper East Side may only be a journey of thirty-five miles, but what it actually entails is a trip to a small chalet in the Swiss Alps, where anyone with a love for a rousing game of cat and mouse will find themselves well at home.
Murray-Smith’s central character is the world-famous American author and master of mystery and suspense, Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995), who at the point in her life when we meet her, is nearing the end. A chronic smoker, she was in the early stages of lung cancer, and the playwright’s imaginary visit from a young emissary from her publisher, to her home in a village on the outskirts of Switzerland, makes up the entire cast. Highsmith was a true bad ass, much like her villainous Tom Ripley, first introduced in 1955 as the protagonist of what eventually became five novels (and in many incarnations over the years as film, theatre and radio projects, such as the successful 1999 film The Talented Mr. Ripley, starring Matt Damon). As played in a knowing and unflinching manner by Peggy J. Scott, Highsmith is a terror from the get-go: using her skills to unravel mysteries by excoriating her seemingly innocent guest (Daniel Petzold) from the moment he shows up at her remote home, in order to get her name on a contract to secure the rights to one final book that might finish once and for all the story of her popular Ripley character.
Under Dan Foster’s expert direction, the action is played out on a small, intimate and even slightly claustrophobic set (James J. Fenton). There is moody and distinctive lighting by Andrew Gmoser, which add to the push-pull between the two leads, who are separated by everything from age, to distinctly opposing moral compasses (or is that really the case?). Highsmith is not only a nihilist, but an elitist and a racist. Someone for whom putting delicious language in her mouth comes easily to as sly a playwright as Murray-Smith. She engages Highsmith in ambitious combat with the young delivery boy, ripe fruit for the picking—and presented to her on a silver platter. As Edward, Petzold gets under the skin of the character, with insight that grows in intensity as he attempts to solve on the fly every clue that Highsmith throws at him; suggestions and intimations that will bring him closer to his goal of getting her to sign on the dotted line. Challenges are put forth, a forced intimacy brings the two closer than either imagine, and the tension (happily) never lets up.
Switzerland brought to mind the classic mystery-comedy Deathtrap, Ira Levin’s superb game of cat and mouse, that remains to this day the longest running suspense play in Broadway history. It ran for four years and four months, unheard of for a straight play in today’s modern theatre with its penchant for enormously expensive musicals. And although Deathtrap’s long run has not been topped since it closed thirty-seven years ago, perhaps the time is right once again for another in this always welcome genre; one that includes cracking good humor, knowing sophistication, and twists and turns you don’t see coming. Why not head over to Switzerland, by way of 59 East 59th Street? After all, once you cross Fifth Avenue, you’re already on your way to Europe.
Photos: Rana Faure
Switzerland is at 59E59 Theaters, 59 E. 59th Street, for a limited engagement from now until March 3rd. Visit www.59e59.org for tickets.