By Patrick Hurley
The relationship between artist and subject, creator and creation is often an exploration of the morality of the artist. The unleashing upon the world of some part of themselves, even if it’s only minutely, feels like an attempt at immortality. Sometimes this creation is manifest physically, as was the case for Dr. Frankenstein, and sometimes there is only the suggestion of personification, as if a subject seems to have a life all its own. Playwright Joanna Murray-Smith tackles this very idea with her new play Switzerland, playing now through April 19 at the Geffen Playhouse.
Lauded crime novelist Patricia Highsmith (Laura Linney), of the Talent Mr. Ripley book series, among countless others, must face the prospect of revitalizing her most infamous creation, Tom Ripley, her impossibly brilliant, elegantly homicidal protagonist. Tucked away in the Swiss Alps, far from civilization, living the life of an old recluse, Ms. Highsmith receives a visit from her publisher’s assistant. A highly reserved young man by the name of Edward Ridgeway (Seth Numrich) has arrived to convince the disagreeable Ms. Highsmith to write her definitive and final Ripley novel. And her rejection of the idea, and of Mr. Ridgeway himself are met with a surprising rejoinder by the young man, which seems to imply that she may have met her match. The two of them engage in a battle of wits. Ms. Highsmith attempts to explain herself as an artist, and her somewhat strange relationship to Tom Ripley, while her new companion seems to be working under some unspoken agenda.
What ensues is a ninety minute cat-and-mouse game meant to reflect an actual Highsmith story. There are a few problems here, though. Mainly, Patricia Highsmith’s stories are multi-layered, brimming with highly evolved prose, and intricate maneuverings that simply cannot be translated to the stage. At least not in naturalistic form. There is a rich inner world that she invites the reader into, and, in fact, she is so skilled with her language that she can get a reader to empathize with a sociopath. To that effect, this play wisely does something similar. It allows the characterization of Ms. Highsmith to evoke empathy even though a great deal of her dialogue is that of an overbearing, obnoxious racist. How is this accomplished? Simple. Laura Linney plays her. And so as the story unfolds through revelations, and as ideas get plumbed for greater depths, what we’re left with is, essentially, a wonderful acting showcase.
This is not to denigrate the writing style of Joanna Murray-Smith, who does a very sturdy job tackling an impenetrable personality like Patricia Highsmith. But what she gives her in personality, she deprives her in emotional accessibility; to her strength. Through her caustic wit, her seething outlook on life, and her utter contempt for most people she is entertaining. We laugh. We laugh in spite of our politically correct selves. She also infuses her, like a character in a Highsmith novel, with a morbid fascination of gore and blood and dismemberment. She goes on giddily about her knife and gun collections, she wants to talk about how Edward’s parents were killed, and she proudly proclaims that she delights at the thought of beheadings. The only element that is somewhat lacking is the deeper vulnerability that this story arc simply doesn’t allow. And so always is the case that a punchy one-liner overrides greater complexity.
Director Mark Brokaw knows how to get the most from his two actors, and there is an ease in the movements, so as to never feel overdramatized. This is in part due to his skillful directing, but also to the actors.
As Patricia Highsmith, Laura Linney is ferociously good. She sinks her teeth just far enough into the role as to keep her more veracious than exaggerated. She is able to pull off unpleasant and crude while always maintaining something redeemable. And it is in not in the humor, but in the few moments of honest reflection, where the character recalls something from her past that Ms. Linney is truly remarkable.
Seth Numrich is outstanding as Edward. He has a much more difficult role, a much more layered, nuanced character. As a pensive and affable young man in the beginning of the play, he is good, but it is the deliberate transformation he undergoes that makes his performance impressive. This play skirts along a line of alienating its audience with characters of such questionable morality, but somehow that seems to be the point.
The play deals with the nature of the writer/character relationship, and how the outside world may never really understand the intimacy of the process, nor the very nature of the artist herself. An artist being misunderstood is a tired idea, but a valid one when we consider the blood, sweat, and tears that is required to create something new. And so the question of morality is called into play. Does an artist abide by a different set of moral codes than the rest of society?
In the end, the play never goes too far into mind of its protagonist. And the structure of this play, though a nice attempt to recreate the intricate puzzle of a Highsmith novel, ultimately can’t quite get there. It is, however, an entertaining piece of theater that boasts a pair of great performances, and adds a note to the continuing discussion of what is behind the very nature of the highly complicated relationship between an artist and her subject.
By Joanna Murray-Smith
Directed by Mark Brokaw
Through April 19
10886 Le Conte Avenue, Los Angeles 90024
Sun- 2PM & 7PM
For Tickets: www.geffenplayhouse.com