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In painter Francisco Goya’s 1798 etching “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters,” a figure of an artist slumps over a desk, the creatures of his dreams swelling up behind him like a wave about to crash. “Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters,” clarified the artist. One such impossible monster is Tom Ripley, the sociopath who lies, steals and murders his way through five of author Patricia Highsmith’s celebrated crime novels, inspiring numerous movies like The Talented Mr. Ripley, The American Friend and Plein soleil. And like the predators in Goya’s etching, Ripley looms over the author’s final days in a smartly staged production of Switzerland, Joanna Murray-Smith’s overripe and underwhelming new thriller celebrating its North American premiere.
Emblematic of mid-century existential angst, Ripley is a character admired by Highsmith’s American critics though less so than their European counterparts, who placed the author alongside Camus, Kafka and Dostoyevsky. Having forsaken the New York literary scene (an old boys network where she felt under-appreciated), she spent her final years in a Swiss hideaway where Murray-Smith’s play begins. Highsmith was a notoriously difficult person so it comes as little surprise to find her alone on a snowy mountaintop surrounded by her collection of antique firearms and sabers.
As if from out of the blue, Edward (Seth Numrich), an emissary from her New York publisher, appears with a contract for her to sign and a fervent wish for one last Ripley novel. At first it seems Highsmith might murder him in his sleep and roast him alive. “I like humanity,” she explains, “only edited.” She has high praise for painter Francis Bacon because he had channeled an abusive childhood into great art, something to which Highsmith also aspires.
Read more ‘Switzerland’: Sydney Theater Review
While Linney’s commitment to her character is full-throttle, her problem lies in Australian playwright Murray-Smith’s text. What begins as a delicious set-up becomes a play about an artist confronting her own demons, except Murray-Smith offers only a superficial shell of the vituperative author. While checking off relevant biographical boxes — abusive parents, frustrated lesbian, racist alcoholic — Highsmith emerges as little more than a lethal dose of toxic piss and vinegar. Her tonal range varies from pretty angry to furious, to the point where we are reminded of how long a 95-minute running time without intermission can feel.
The play’s real center isn’t Highsmith but Edward the ingénue, an avid fan who takes to the job like Jonathan Harker to Count Dracula. Only who is the predator and who is the prey, the audience will wonder as Edward tries to coax her toward Ripley. So distracting is Highsmith’s shouting and profanity, it’s easy to overlook the nuance in Numrich’s quietly layered performance.
Following Broadway acclaim in 2011’s War Horse, Numrich garnered more great reviews for Golden Boy, and was a hit in the 2013 London production of Sweet Bird of Youth opposite Kim Cattrall. Murray-Smith appears to have taken more care in crafting Edward as a character than Highsmith, and Numrich subtly demonstrates a gradual shift through a late plot twist that nonetheless feels manipulative.
Highsmith steadfastly refuses to write at first but then challenges Edward to come up with an inspirational murder that she can put to paper. As the two hash out the perfect crime, the play revels in the act of writing. But the only thing at stake is whether or not Highsmith will write another book. It’s a question of interest only to Highsmith junkies, who likely already know the answer.
Two-handers like Switzerland or Sleuth usually involve peeling back layers, dispensing with social niceties until the raw meat of competition or contempt is laid bare. In Switzerland, Highsmith dispenses with niceties from the onset, presenting a surface study of contempt as some sort of twisted muse. Sleuth incorporates games and one-upmanship while Switzerland sits squarely in the world of writing. And watching people write is only slightly more fascinating than watching them sleep.
Director Mark Brokaw keeps the energy up, blocking his two actors with a natural flow in the open-floor space of Highsmith’s bunker-like living room, with its spectacular 180-degree view of the snow-covered Alps courtesy of scenic designer Anthony T. Fanning.
Murray-Smith has a history at the Geffen, where her plays The Female of the Species (with Annette Bening) and The Gift both received mixed reviews. Rounding out her Geffen trio, Switzerland seems unlikely to break that trend. And for the record, Highsmith left this world in 1995 without having written a final Ripley novel and without Goya’s “impossible monsters” looming over her shoulder, unless you count her accountant, who was the last person she saw before dying alone in a hospital.
Cast: Laura Linney, Seth Numrich
Director: Mark Brokaw
Playwright: Joanna Murray-Smith
Set designer: Anthony T. Fanning
Costume designer: Ellen McCartney
Lighting designer: Lap Chi Chu
Music & sound designer: John Ballinger
Presented by The Geffen Playhouse
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Melvin Van Peebles