backstage (2007-38)

â“Y

by Matthew Blanshei

â“You know how Nietzsche tells us to live dangerously? Well, we thought we would do soâ"thatâ’s all. We have done so. We have done the thing. Others have talked. We have done.â”

As the audience has known since the opening moments of the first act, the â“thingâ” Brandon (Robert McDonald) is referring to is a â“passionless and motivelessâ” murder. It may seem like quite a stretch for Brandon to brandish Nietzscheâ’s slogan as a justification for, as director Fran Shea puts it, â“killing someone out of boredomâ” and then celebrating the deed by shoving the corpse into a locked chest that then serves as the buffet table for a dinner party whose guest list includes the victimâ’s father. But Nietzscheâ’s half-playful call for artists and writers to â“live dangerouslyâ” by producing works that take creative risks does accurately describe Sheaâ’s decision to stage Patrick Hamiltonâ’s Rope.

â“Dangerâ” in fact seems to abound from all sides before the play begins. Consider first of all how Hamiltonâ’s sense of realism seems all but impossible to create when less than two level feet separate the outer edge of the 20â’ x 22â’ stage from the first of about a dozen rows of seats. But no matter where the play may be staged, director and actors would still be confronted with the fact that the style and content of the 1929 script does not seem â“datedâ” merely because of its age. For example, the commercial success that greeted Hamiltonâ’s play when it opened in London was attributed primarily to the sense of fascinated horror provoked by the depiction of a passionless killer who views himself as consummate artistâ"a by now all too familiar conceit that seems to subsist as a mildly diverting form of cinematic camp. But perhaps the most formidable problem facing the company is that many in the audience will have already seen the Hitchcock film which was based upon Hamiltonâ’s play. This is bad news because what is most memorable about the 1948 film is that it has a distinctively theatrical quality about it (owing to how Hitchcock creates the impression it was shot entirely in a single take, without any cuts).

So it seems unavoidable that the audience will have the film in mind when they see the play, which puts Shea at an unfair disadvantage since she can hardly match the way Hitchcock captivates viewers by having them see only what he wants them to see and when he wants them to see it.

But it is likely that someone who has seen the film will find it hard to become fully engaged in the play for a far more simple reason: the original dialogue is, unfortunately, not very good. (Hitchcockâ’s screenwriter Arthur Laurents rewrote every single line.) The script is marred above all by the fact that, through no fault of the actors, the comedy of manners orchestrated in the first act creates an obtrusive atmosphere in which only trace elements of psychological tension can be found.

Moreover, Hamiltonâ’s exacting and yet superficial descriptions of each characterâ’s psychological state greatly constrict the actorsâ’ ability to give their performances any degree of shading. Consider the straightjacket Pat Fitch is given to wear as she portrays Leila Arden: â“she has no ideas. She also hasâa tendency to conceal that deficiency with a show of sophisticationâwhich she brings out with rather comic emphasis, rolling her eyesâas though she doesnâ’t mean what she is saying.â”

Shea and Fitch seem to have decided, understandably, that the only way to portray a woman with â“no ideasâ” is to present a caricature of a caricature.

The strongest moment of the production occurs after Professor Johnstone Kentley (Joe Jaynes) takes a call from his bed-ridden wife who informs him their son (who lies dead in the chest) has not returned home as expected. His failed, halting attempts to suppress his increasing agitation by hastily chalking it up to an unaccountable bout of irrationality seem suddenly to take us into the heart of a powerful melodrama.

Curiously enough, this pivotal moment of emotional intensity is not stressed as such by Hamilton in any of his detailed directives. But it is identified early on by Brandon who, in his role as the director of the play within the play, explains to his accomplice that â“it is he the father, who gives the entire macabre quality of the evening.â” Brandonâ’s â“directionâ” of course falters at the end of the play, as the action slips out of his control and the crime is discovered. But the same could be said about the playwright, because whatever sense of the macabre the drama does manage to generate is not nearly powerful enough to give sufficient moral and aesthetic force to the impassioned condemnation of the murderers.

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