Renowned award winning novelist, essayist and short story writer, Patricia Highsmith isolates herself in Switzerland with views of the gorgeous snow-capped Alps glinting beams of light cheerily toward her house. As her desk and old-fashioned typewriter face opposite the window, we understand the writer is not in Switzerland for a pleasant reprieve from the United States which she often excoriated in newspaper articles and editorials.
No! She is there for another purpose. As we hop on the erratic train ride of her mind over the peaks and valleys of Highsmith’s jagged mental state fueled by alcohol, we discover what that purpose is in the Hudson Stage Company production of Switzerland. Highsmith’s goal emerges from the thrust and parry of her cruel, epithetical witticisms directed at guest Edward Ridgeway’s ineffective, mewling arguments.
From the opening of Switzerland (written by Joanna Murray-Smith) as Highsmith fronts off against Edward Ridgeway and continues until the conclusion, their menacing pas de deux fascinates and thrills. Theirs is a standoff that requires no compromise, just “a winner take all” attitude to finish off the opponent. In her inimical and irrevocable way, Highsmith finally triumphs.
Ridgeway (Daniel Petzold’s performance surprises and titillates) has been sent by her publisher who intends for Highsmith (the irascible and cantankerous Peggy J. Scott) to write one more crime novel in the globally successful series about mesmerizing murderer Tom Ripley. Ridgeway employs the typical mundanely unsophisticated patter of an underling sent on an impossible mission to get Highsmith to sign a last contract. Highsmith flays his emotional skin and carves up his pride like a parboiled turkey and dumps the carcass in the toilet as dung. The process is humorous to watch as he sinks further into himself and she blossoms with the sardonic verve of a yellow-jacket wasp tearing at a stink weed flower.
Nevertheless, Ridgeway sustains her sneering barbs about his age, US society and more. He persists and gradually threads together the spot-on phrases and allurements to seduce Highsmith. What initially intrigues Highsmith is that Ridgeway may be psychologically traumatized by the loss of his parents in a car accident. She points out that he must be an orphan for he plays the part of an orphan willing to please. Intrigued and puffed up at her accurate assumptions about him, Highsmith cruelly revels with glee as she penetrates his emotions forcing him to rehash the accident’s how, when and where like a criminal investigator. Her enthusiastic reactions to his morbid retelling are humorous and we become as interested as she about this first appearances milk-toast who seemed to fit in with the furniture until she drew him out.
During the course of Ridgeway’s sojourn into this indelicate persuasion to seduce Highsmith to do what for a decade she has chosen not to, we learn of her noxious views and stances which are racist, anti-semitic, and somewhat homophobic, though she herself is admittedly gay. Joanna Murray-Smith paints this dark portrait of the beloved writer’s underbelly which reflects the truth if one reads her fans’ and detractors’ commentary about her personal life. As Ridgeway continues his persuasion, Highsmith gradually is pulled in and accedes after he suggests plot points for the new work. She takes the bait and they contrive together. He stays the night and the scene converts and heads in a completely different direction in the morning. It is then we realize that up is down, black is white and appearances like books cannot be judged by their covers.
What emerges Murray-Smith cleverly twists into high intrigue. The logic of this turning point is exacting and perfect. And the shock of it is succinctly and boldly enacted by Petzold’s adroit, flexible and admirable acting chops. Scott deftly works in concert holding her own with commensurate power and delight. Confronting this plot switch on a switch with hints of magical realism, Highsmith enters into her glory. Her enthusiasm is boundless once more, as if she has been given a new lease on a life that she had grown weary of in its sameness, inane vanities and boredoms.
Directed by Dan Foster, the staging, the choices of the actors and director in a pacing of revelations shine especially at the beginning and the conclusion of the production. After the “switch” the scenes evolve rapidly. And we are riveted when the music shifts and Petzold’s Ridgeway and Scott’s Highsmith move in a delicious tango with a hints of love and attraction.
There are no spoiler alerts here. You will have to appreciate for yourself the excellent acting and the superb ensemble work of Scott and Petzold who listen, react, nuance and rightly divide their tone to enjoy the fun and humor of the relationship that they create between these characters.
Kudos to the creative team. I thought the music was a particularly fine choice (Garrett Hood is responsible for the Sound Design and Composing). Kudos go to James J. Fenton for his thoughtful set design, to Charlotte Palmer-Lane who creates the Highsmith “look” and Ridgeway’s clothing finesses; and to Andrew Gmoser for apt, suggestive lighting design.
The production in its New York City premiere is a must-see for Highsmith fans and mystery fans. And for those who may have seen a few of Highsmith’s works made into films like the Ripley series, Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock version, 1951) and wacky comedic take-offs like Throw Momma From the Train (Danny DeVito version, 1987), you will appreciate how Murray-Smith generates this fascinating piece which is well-shepherded by Dan Foster and finely rendered by Peggy J. Scott and Daniel Petzold.
Switzerland runs with no intermission (1 hour 30 minutes) at 59E59 Theaters (Fifty-nine East 59th Street) until 3 March. For tickets you may call 59E59 Theaters at 212-753 5959 or go online by CLICKING HERE