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LONDON — Early on in the new West End play Strangers on a Train, one character, trying to get another on his side, exults that they are like men drawn in stark black and white opposed by a world of gray. As if unsure everyone at the back of the theater got the point, the show literalizes the idea through production and costume design, fabricating a strictly monochrome world where only glasses of sangria, red hair and orange flames provide the rare splashes of color. This is a nifty visual trick, one that handily evokes film noir aesthetic in a hat tip to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 film adaptation of the same story, which most viewers will probably know better than Patricia Highsmith’s 1950 debut novel.
The suspicion lingers, however, that neither the line nor the staging is much more than flashy faux profundity, entertaining but empty, much like the show itself. Nevertheless, with sturdy but hardly revelatory performances from leads Laurence Fox and Jack Huston, the play looks set to pull in nostalgic crowds drawn by word of the production’s impressive stagecraft.
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Parodied and alluded to in countless other films and TV shows, the core conceit of Strangers on a Train is by now iconic. Filthy rich, idle, sexually ambiguous Charles Bruno (Huston, best known for TV’s Boardwalk Empire) meets handsome Guy Haines (Fox) on a train – as in Highsmith’s novel, Haines is an aspiring architect, whereas Hitchcock made him a rising tennis star – and over drinks in a private berth they get to know each other. Bruno hates his rich father, whom he sees as a controlling spoilsport. He intuits that Guy likewise has little love for his unfaithful wife Miriam (Myanna Buring), a childhood sweetheart gone sour whom he hopes to divorce soon. Bruno proposes that he murder Miriam and Guy kill his father, but Guy laughs off the suggestion.
Bruno, however, is deadly serious and goes through with his end of the unagreed bargain, strangling Miriam at a Texas fairground. It’s an enchantingly creepy scene, one that literally revolves around the production’s whirling scenery, transformed temporarily into a merry-go-round with lickety-split speed by unseen stage hands. Spooky snatches from what sounds like Dimitri Tiomkin’s original score for the film are mixed with stock calliope music, which alongside eerie lighting and film projections enhance the atmosphere of innocence-defiling seediness. This sets a dramatic high-water mark that the rest of the production never quite matches.
Viewers who only know the Hitchcock version — a bravura work of cinema even if it completely bowdlerizes the story — will be taken aback by the direction of the plot thereafter. This cleaves more closely to Highsmith’s original, although playwright Craig Warner’s text also diverges dramatically from her template in the last act. Evoking shades of Highsmith’s beloved Dostoyevsky, Bruno manages to browbeat Guy into going through with the murder of Bruno’s father as the first act ends, even though this will have nothing but grave consequences on Guy’s burgeoning architectural career and his relationship with his tony, socialite fiancée Anne (Miranda Raison, doing her excellent best with an underwritten role).
One of Hitchcock’s few improvements on Highsmith was to emphasize even more strongly the disparity in class between Guy on the one hand and Bruno on the other, making Guy more of a social-climber and an outsider with much to lose by his involvement in murder. Class is a more muted issue here, sensed mainly in the contempt the characters express for trashy, duplicitous Miriam. Indeed, there’s a certain revelry in the lives of the rich and indolent, delivered especially in scenes with Bruno’s louche, cougar-ish mother (Imogen Stubbs), whose relationship with her son has quasi-incestuous overtones that seem, weirdly, to be played here for laughs.
That twisted mother-son relationship seems to serve up an almost textbook 1940s explanation for Bruno’s clearly closeted but palpable homosexuality. It’s a rather retrograde note even as the play foregrounds in a very contemporary, audience-pleasing way the homoerotic undercurrents present in Highsmith’s book.
Huston does a particularly fine job of projecting through posture, covert touches of the hand, and ingratiating smiles his stalker-like, unrequited passion for Guy, letting tiny camp intonations infiltrate his speech even as the character does his best to present a straight-acting front. It rounds out the role, and makes Bruno much more sympathetic, especially in the last act when he starts to unravel properly, both emotionally and physically from the effects of too much booze.
Unfortunately, Guy as written here is less three-dimensional, and in Fox’s hands, he becomes a somewhat inscrutable, brooding cipher. Fox’s projection skills are not as refined as Huston’s, so he swings disconcertingly between mumbled growls and violent ranting. The latter helps to wake up the sleepier audience members during the longueurs of the second act, but otherwise it’s an interior performance that might have worked better on film than stage.
Director Robert Allan Ackerman (best known for Broadway productions of Bent, Slab Boys, and a resident directorship at the New York Shakespeare Festival, as well as the film Safe Passage) strives to bring a kinetic energy to the proceedings. But the constituent elements of melodrama, detective story and psychological showdown never quite knit together, to the extent that tonally the two acts seem to come from two different plays.
Too many scenes feel inconsequential to the action, while that impressive revolving stage is pressed into action one or two times too often to show nothing much happening elsewhere just because it can. Perhaps the idea was to find a correlative to the unsettling plasticity of space and time that Highsmith creates in her interior monologue-heavy prose, which suggests a woozy sense of the ground or many hours shifting underneath the characters’ feet before they even notice it themselves. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite come off here, despite the undoubtedly oneric effects of lighting and projection designs by Tim Lutkin and Peter Wilms respectively. But at least it’s clear throughout that no expense was spared by Barbara Broccoli and the other producers to create eye-catching mainstream entertainment.
Venue: Gielgud Theatre, London (runs through Feb. 22)
Cast: Laurence Fox, Jack Huston, Myanna Buring, Imogen Stubbs, Miranda Raison, Christian McKay
Playwright: Craig Warner, based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith
Director: Robert Allan Ackerman
Set designer: Tim Goodchild
Costume designer: Dona Granata
Lighting designer: Tim Lutkin
Projection designer: Peter Wilms
Sound designer: Avgoustos Psillas
Presented by Barbara Broccoli, Colleen Camp, Michael G. Wilson, Mary Beth O’Connor/Lucky VIII, Lou Spisto, Tim Degraye, Frederick Zollo, Michael Rose Ltd.
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