It’s common to call a puzzling mystery a head scratcher.
“Switzerland” is a mystery, playing at Curtain Call Theatre in Latham through March 14. The play centers about famed mystery writer Patricia Highsmith. It’s a head scratcher in a way that is not entirely complimentary.
Highsmith was one of the most successful mystery writers of the 20th Century. One of her earlier works was “Strangers on a Train,” which Alfred Hitchcock made into a classic film.
More contemporary audiences also know her work from film. She created Tom Ripley, a cold, calculating psychopathic murderer who is so charming he has the reader rooting for him to get away with his crimes. Several popular films were made of the series.
“Switzerland” gives us an elderly Highsmith who is expecting to die in a relatively short time. She is visited by Edward Ridgeway, a young representative from her publishing house. They want a final Ripley book; she wants to be left alone.
Ridgeway plays into Highsmith’s resentment for the literary world that she hates, because they regard her as a person who writes psychological thrillers and not a writer who creates a world filled with complex characters. “Do people call ‘Crime and Punishment’ a crime novel?”’ she asks.
Midway during the two-hour production, offered with an intermission, Highsmith admits she has writer’s block. At the same time she realizes Ridgeway can help her create a Ripley novel that would prove her a literary genius.
Though offered in two acts, the play has essentially three movements. The switches in dominance between the two characters play out like a very smart cat and mouse game. There are times it appears playwright Joanna Murray-Smith is writing an homage to Highsmith trying to use Highsmith’s unique voice to create a theatrical mystery.
The problem is there is very little drama in “Switzerland.” Like most two-character plays, the performers are forced to deliver long chunks of exposition. This makes an already talky and deliberate play with a constantly changing sense of power dynamics, seem, well, head scratching. The final section is so esoteric, you scratch with both hands.
To his credit, director Aaron Holbritter finds a tension in the play that really isn’t in the script. I am not usually a fan of pauses, but Holbritter uses them to great effect.
However, the single greatest problem is the performance of Barbara Richards as Highsmith. One of the area’s most dependable actors, Richards offers a portrayal of a cranky, bitter woman who has retreated from the world and maybe reality.
Richards does not signal the woman’s genuine nastiness. She is not willing to let her character be dislikeable and plays for bitter comedy rather than hateful speech. Lacking this harshness, there is little fear that she might be dangerous to herself or others.
The portrayal diminishes the suspense in the piece. Thankfully, Ian LaChance picks up the slack making Ridgeway an enigmatic figure who might or might not be the man he seems. He is as charming and as scheming a person as is Tom Ripley. Indeed, if he had been born in a different time period, he might have been the model for Highsmith’s most famous creation.
LaChance is an actor who gets better with every performance. He offers a varied, layered portrayal that is believable, even when the text is not. He even brings some sense of terror to the puzzling ending that wanders into Edward Albee-land.
An asset to the production is the visually attractive set by Andy Nice. The gray bunker-like set is not only stunningly attractive, it is almost eloquent as it expresses the personality of its owner – Patricia Highsmith. Lynne Skaskiw’s props are equally terrific. Costume design goes uncredited, as well it should.
“Switzerland” is a complex psychological thriller that is heavy on complexity and less so in thrills. It continues Thursdays through Sundays at Curtain Call Theater in Latham through March 14. For tickets and schedule information call 518-877-7529 or go to curtaincalltheatre.com
Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.
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