Reviewed by Myron Meisel
The Geffen Playhouse
Through April 19
If the unexamined life is not worth living, then for novelist Patricia Highsmith (Laura Linney, making her Los Angeles stage debut), detached dissector of amoral murder, the unimagined death may not be worth dying. This is suggested by Australian Joanna Murray-Smith’s new play Switzerland, an original commission by The Geffen Playhouse presented as a co-premiere with The Sydney Theatre Company.
The corrosively unpleasant Highsmith (Strangers on a Train, The Cry of the Owl, The Two Faces of January, and under a pseudonym, the groundbreaking lesbian romance The Price of Salt) expatriated herself to Europe after 1963, resentful of the diminishing pigeonholing by an American literary establishment that judged her work the lesser for its genre trappings and gender authorship, despite her ambitions to develop themes more in the tradition of Dostoevsky, Kafka or Camus, than Agatha Christie or Raymond Chandler. The play posits a visit to her home in Tegna, Locarno by an ambitious publishing house flunky in early fall 1994, months before her death. The young man importunes her to sign a contract to write a sixth entry in her series of novels revolving around the seductive con man and remorseless killer, Tom Ripley.
Highsmith vituperatively rejects the young man, Edward (Seth Numrich), with coruscating invective, mocking and humiliating him by throwing back at him nearly every phrase he utters. His job on the line, Edward may be unnerved but not deterred, and he progresses from flattery to sales pitch to partaking of Highsmith’s dismissive, obliterative attacks as a form of seductive byplay. Highsmith finally challenges him to conjure up a genuinely inventive murder for Ripley to perpetrate for profit, and for this fetishistic lover of deadly weapons, the gauntlet has been thrown.
Casting so young an actor as Linney, who looks neither 73 nor humpbacked nor terminally ill nor alcoholic nor traumatically self-loathing, cannot help but playfully suggest a fanciful take on Highsmith’s character, perhaps an imaginative projection by the author herself. But which author: Highsmith or Murray-Smith? Certainly Linney capably commands audience empathy however rigorously she limns Highsmith’s aggressive hostility and defensive cruelty, far more persuasive in her delight in antique pistols and daggers or the relish of embroidering the elegance of sociopathic trangression. It may be a performance of many notes, though one of recurring refrains, as insistently ironic in its limited dimensionality as the repeated invocations of the Rodgers & Hammerstein ditty, “Happy Talk”.
In contrast, Numrich’s flustered interlocutor is compelled to acquire chameleonic characteristics that allow him to progress from a perceived cliché into increasingly confounding ambiguity. It’s the more challenging, if less flamboyant, role, and Numrich actually bears the brunt of managing the play’s tricky shifts of perception with undetectable agility.
Many intelligent and clearly articulated ideas are tossed between the characters, and the show boasts an innate theatricality of conception, yet there is little actual development of these ideas beyond a certain workmanlike embroidery. Curiously, Switzerland means to support Highsmith’s artistic achievement and yet itself is vulnerable to some of the same criticisms she suffered: that as an entertaining psychological thriller, it fails to penetrate deeply enough into its disturbing implications, ultimately preferring to amuse more than to enlighten.
The Geffen is to be encouraged and commended for commissioning new work and for remaining loyal in its consistent commitment to its playwriting talent (it previously produced Murray-Smith’s The Female of the Species and The Gift, and has been similarly supportive of Beth Henley, Jane Anderson and many others). Nevertheless, given the current turmoil engulfing the future viability of Los Angeles’ intimate theater, it would be discouraging indeed if new plays such as Switzerland represented the sole remaining model for new theater: a two-hander, constructed on well-worn dramaturgy, cast (and even rehearsed) in New York.
Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Avenue, Wstwd.; Tues.- Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; mats Sat., 3 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. (no perfs March 22 and April 15); through April 19. (310) 208-5454, www.geffenplayhouse.com