BWW Review: SWITZERLAND at Hudson Stage Company

BWW Review: SWITZERLAND at Hudson Stage CompanySWITZERLAND by Joanna Murray-Smith at The Hudson Stage Company

Patricia Highsmith's publisher once called her "a mean, cruel, hard, unlovable, unloving human being...I could never penetrate how any human being could be that relentlessly ugly.... But her books? Brilliant." One could hardly ask for a better protagonist, right? Australian playwright Joanna Murray Smith turns the tables on author Patricia Highsmith by placing her in the center of a mystery loosely based on her own life.

In "Switzerland," given its' New York Premier by the Hudson Stage Company Saturday evening, Patricia Highsmith, the American author best known for the Tom Ripley series of crime novels, is the focal point of an intriguing tale that clearly is intended to pay homage to her unique style of mystery writing - therefore, "Switzerland" is a dramatic work, steeped in fiction, featuring a real-life character.

Highsmith burst onto the literary scene with her first novel "Strangers on a Train" which Alfred Hitchcock adapted into a legendary film less than a year after the novel's publication. "Switzerland" shows us the author at the end of her run, cynical, angry, depressed, slave to alcohol, cloistered away in her Alpine retreat (where she lived since the 1960s). Placing Highsmith the actual person as a fictional character in a drama that closely resembles one of her own taunt thrillers is a move of sheer brilliance.

BWW Review: SWITZERLAND at Hudson Stage Company
Daniel Petzold & Peggy J. Scott

The play chronicles a visit by a seemingly naive young man named Edward Ridgeway (Daniel Petzold) sent by Highsmith's publisher, ostensibly to convince the reclusive author to pen another Ripley novel and revive her sagging career. Edward arrives at Highsmith's home, which looks frozen in time technologically: a manual typewriter, a record player, and a collection of hundreds of vinyl albums adore the room. Multiple pistols, knives, swords and assorted weaponry cover the shelves and walls.

In their discourse, predictably, Highsmith tears Edward apart, and the initial rounds of their jousting are not terribly engaging. But the young man has a thicker skin than she expects and soon the two embark on a more interesting journey, one that shows Edward to be more than simply the manifestation of everything Highsmith hates about the New York literary world that she left behind long ago. Along the way Highsmith eloquently (and often quite hilariously) details her disdain for Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, and especially Kurt Vonnegut. Murray-Smith gives her characters wonderfully ripe one-liners and on-the-mark zingers targeting the mostly-male, mostly-white, mostly-Jewish, literary establishment. Highsmith's famously high self-regard is on display in some delectable cracks. When citing Norman Mailer's dismissal of her writing as mere "high-class pulp fiction", she retorts: "Do people call Crime and Punishment a mere crime novel?"

BWW Review: SWITZERLAND at Hudson Stage Company
Peggy J. Scott

Peggy J. Scott is utterly captivating as Highsmith, delivering a highly nuanced take on the curmudgeonly author. Her delivery of Highsmith's bitingly sardonic ruminations is pitch perfect. But there is something just a little bit cliched about the character of the chain-smoking, contrarian, anti-Semitic, bigoted Highsmith. One expects more sagacity from a mind brilliant enough to create a character as supremely and gracefully evil as Tom Ripley. After all, villains typically appear in only a single crime story, while heroes can last a whole series. Sadly, the villains are often far more interesting than the heroes. Highsmith overcame that inconvenience in Tom Ripley, the ultimate anti-hero/hero.

Edward, the publisher's pawn, is the far more detailed character. Each time he appears, he has evolved somewhat from the last skirmish. There is no intermission in the play, but there are three clearly defined breaks in the action, so as to almost create a three-act structure. (although there is a very odd sense that the plot regularly jumps from 8am to bed time in only a few moments - with the breakfast still in view.) Edward is the quintessential Highsmith character (no spoilers here) and Daniel Petzold does a beguiling job of slowly peeling back the onion, allowing Edward's multiple layers to emerge, each time slightly, almost imperceptibly, more self-assured, more sophisticated in manner (and more stylishly dressed!) Petzold's Edward gradually goes from callow youth to industrious professional, to cool self-assured craftsman with subtlety and grace.

BWW Review: SWITZERLAND at Hudson Stage Company
Daniel Petzold

The narrative becomes more tightly focused as the play progresses and more disquieting questions arise. The subtle plot twists and machinations keep the audience guessing, as Highsmith agrees to write the new novel if and only if Edward can figure out how a certain character is murdered. The real joy of the play is trying to figure out just who is really the snake and who is the mongoose as Edward and Highsmith vacillate as predator and prey.

Director Dan Foster deftly weaves the tantalizing plot through its' many twists and turns with just the right pace, effectively gaining steam as the play progresses. The marvelous sets by James Fenton are practically a third character in the story, revealing great insights into the author's world and mindset.

"Switzerland" is an ambitious work that requires some suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience, but once you are onboard, you will definitely enjoy the ride. The play is most successful when it delivers a sincere tribute to Highsmith's style, and less so when it tries to emulate her voice. The final twist (one of many) is an audacious act of dramatic conceit that is either sheer brilliance or a metaphor gone horribly wrong - depending on your point of view of such things. This critic found it to be the former. And judging by their reaction on opening night, the audience agreed. Hudson Stage Company has a winner on its hands.

"Switzerland" is an incisive, thought-provoking drama that takes the audience on an engaging journey to a world of intellectual giants and fiendish villains - but the entire time it keeps you on the edge of your seat wondering which is which.

-Peter Danish

-Photos: Rana Faure

The New York Premiere of

SWITZERLAND by Joanna Murray-Smith

Starring Peggy J. Scott and Daniel Petzold

Directed by Dan Foster

Whippoorwill Theatre

North Castle Public Library

Kent Place, Armonk, NY

APRIL 20- MAY 5, 2018

Purchase tickets here
OR CALL AT 800.838.3006


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From This Author Peter Danish

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