John P. McCarthy
- Associate New York Theatre Critic
Because James Fenton’s set design for “Switzerland” is so stunning, it takes several minutes to notice the antique weapons arrayed inside the beautiful, sleekly modernist study he’s fashioned. This collection of swords, daggers and pistols brings to mind crime thrillers like “Sleuth” and “Deathtrap,” which is apt since the room and the armaments in question belong to writer Patricia Highsmith, best known for novels and short stories that meld murder, eroticism and moral psychology. No doubt this small arsenal will figure prominently in the plot of “Switzerland.” That is to say, there will be blood, along with much speculation about what spilling it may mean.
Less congruous are the show tunes that comprise the pre-curtain music—including the Cole Porter ditties “Wunderbar” and “You’re the Top”. The typically sunny, romance-fueled idiom of musical theater doesn’t jibe with the cool, minimalist décor or one’s image of Highsmith. And it absolutely clashes with the bitter, misanthropic character we soon meet.
Dissonance is a dominant motif in the portrait playwright Joanna Murray-Smith paints of Highsmith in “Switzerland,” a fascinating two-character piece whose New York premiere has wisely been entrusted to Hudson Stage Company. Drawing liberally from Highsmith’s biography and body of work, it contains considerable humor and macabre intrigue as it plumbs certain risks associated with authorship and artistic creativity. In every respect—not least the terrific performances by Peggy Scott and Daniel Petzold—HSC’s production is high-caliber. It’s safe to deduce Highsmith would approve, especially insofar as it succeeds in putting the audience on edge.
In 1994, an American in his early twenties Edward Ridgeway (Petzold) appears at Highsmith’s home in Tegna, Switzerland, having been dispatched by her New York publisher. He’s come to persuade her to sign a contract for a final novel centered on her most famous creation, homicidal Tom Ripley. A previous emissary on the same errand was so traumatized by his encounter with Patricia that he suffered a nervous breakdown. Edward seems destined for the same fate judging by the ferocity with which she immediately starts haranguing him. Ornery, foul-mouthed, and paranoid, the chain-smoking quasi-recluse dismisses him as a callow lackey unworthy of her attention.
But the persistent Edward won’t let himself be cowed. After weathering Highsmith’s racist diatribes and rants about the dire state of contemporary life and literature, he starts to give as good as he gets. He divines that she’s gravely ill; she responds by intuiting a formative tragedy in his past. Then, after challenging her dark view of humankind, he goads her into defending her literary reputation.
Although their sparring is primarily verbal, the threat of physical violence hangs over everything. When Edward presents Patricia with items she requested from America—cans of Campbell’s soup, peanut butter, button-down shirts, notebooks, and a pair of penny loafers—she’s less than appreciative. The one chink in her prickly armor is glimpsed when she’s caught listening to a recording of “Happy Talk” from “South Pacific” and cops to enjoying songs from the golden age of Broadway musicals.
As Edward’s stay stretches over several days and nights, they begin drinking heavily and Highsmith starts to narrate a fresh Ripley yarn. But because she’s blocked and her confidence is waning, she insists that Edward dream-up the pivotal murder in the story. Their slightly perverse collaboration leads to (not entirely unexpected) role reversals and the line between fiction and real life, fantasy and reality starts to blur.
Arguably, the play’s most provocative idea stems from Highsmith’s contention that writers don’t care about the morality of non-artists or their readers. “We’re beyond your moral compass,” she tells Edward. Not only must aesthetic values and literary imperatives take precedence in the artist’s life, they must disregard conventional morality in their art; they must be amoral in the way Switzerland is neutral in the geo-political sphere. This isn’t terribly radical. But Murray-Smith has Patricia go further when she describes the more-than-vicarious pleasure she takes in conceiving murderous mayhem; and further still when she admits she gets excited at the prospect of leading her reader’s astray, of luring them into committing transgressions in their imaginations and possibly even in real life. In effect, Highsmith advocates shattering her readers’ moral compasses.
“Switzerland” is made more compelling still by the corollary added by Edward when he avers: “What’s the greatest of all human capacities? Not love. Not forgiveness. Not courage. Transformation.” In other words, humankind is distinguished by its ability to adapt and change, not by any moral categories of action or judgment. By arguing we ought to venture beyond good and evil in every context, Edward extends Patricia’s thesis about art and morality to all human endeavor. And yet he’s clever enough to steer the discussion back to its artistic source—back to his literary model and inspiration—when, with Tom Ripley in mind, he flatteringly observes that Patricia knows a little something about people who remake themselves.
As interesting as these highfalutin ideas are, Murray-Smith looks to Highsmith’s weapons collection for a comparatively more prosaic (but still rich) metaphor that illuminates her protagonist as well as a weakness of the play itself. At one point, Patricia grabs hold of a double-barrel derringer pistol and explains why she finds it so enthralling. She lauds its precise, elegant engineering and the fact it has a purpose—that it’s designed to do something. For Highsmith, functional beauty is infinitely more alluring than lovely objects with little or no utility. Something tangible and consequential such as a human life is at stake when a well-designed gun is used in its intended manner. That’s usually not the case when we engage with a painting, sculpture or poem.
Unfortunately, the structural design of “Switzerland” lacks a degree of precision and so the impact of what transpires is muted. The later stages of the scenario aren’t as sharp or as clearly plotted as they might be, or as they could be without sacrificing the ambiguity Murray-Smith is after (and that Highsmith prized in certain contexts). Mostly pertaining to Edward’s development, the action is frustratingly enigmatic in a vital though not crippling or logically inconsistent way.
The play’s betwixt-and-between length is partly responsible. Divided into three scenes of irregular duration, “Switzerland” lasts ninety minutes without an intermission—too long for a one-act yet shy of qualifying as full-length. It feels as though there’s ample fodder for another fifteen minutes, time in which the material could percolate. As written, however, the final two scenes feel rushed; key transitions and plot points seem more abrupt than necessary, without offering the benefits of surprise.
Perhaps the only thing director Dan Foster could have done to offset the structural imbalance is give the actors more dynamic blocking during the play’s first, longest and wordiest stanza. Often in a literate and substantial two-hander—particularly at the beginning of a run and in the opening minutes of a given performance—if the characters don’t move around a lot, it gives the impression that the actors need to channel all their effort and energy into remembering and delivering their lines. That’s not a knock on Scott or Petzold, both of whom are strong. Scott is equally adept at communicating Highsmith’s petty cruelty and the vulnerability that fuels it. Owing to the play’s aforementioned structural kinks, Petzold faces a more intricate challenge insofar as Edward adopts multiple guises in a relatively short amount of time.
Maybe the Patricia Highsmith of “Switzerland” is right after all. Maybe the truth of the matter is that she’s a genius and Edward Ridgeway is just a striver, a poser, a talentless nobody punching way too far above his weight class inside the unexpectedly brutal artistic arena. Not so fast. After watching Joanna Murray-Smith’s scintillating study of authorship and authorial power; after getting inside the tortured imagination of a brilliant writer; and after seeing how hard it can sometimes be to distinguish between love and hate, life and death, victim and perpetrator, you’ll be less inclined to accept such rhetoric at face value ever again. You’ll be much more suspicious of the flimflam some artists must propagate in order to make great art. You also won’t be able to get enough of both.
“Switzerland” runs at Hudson Stage Company at the Whippoorwill Hall Theatre, North Castle Library in Armonk through May 5, 2017