The challenging economics of New York theater makes two-actor plays a holy grail for Off-Broadway producers. Among the numerous two-handers of the past three or four theater seasons, none has had a more arresting first act than Joanna Murray-Smith’s Switzerland. Set in an Alpine aerie, with Cold War elegance courtesy of scenic designer James J. Fenton, Switzerland depicts a showdown between Patricia Highsmith (Patricia J. Scott), author of Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley, and a man she has just met named Edward Ridgeway (Daniel Petzold). Ridgeway is supposedly a representative of a New York publishing house, sent to Switzerland to convince the 73-year-old novelist to sign a book contract.
In this fanciful melodrama—which takes place in the mid-1990s, at the very end of Highsmith’s life—Australian playwright Murray-Smith loses no time establishing acute tension between the two characters. Accustomed to being the smartest person in the room (and, as a recluse, the only person in the house), Highsmith spits rather than speaks the play’s initial line: “You’re late!” What follows is a torrent of edgy dialogue between the prickly host and her unwelcome guest. This lends a sinister tone to the isolated setting (snowy crags with no foliage and bleak sky are all that’s visible out the window); and the effect is an uneasy sense, building with each verbal volley, that bad stuff—really, really bad stuff—is in the offing.
Ridgeway presents Highsmith with a challenge and a gift. The challenge is to create a late-career coup with a sixth novel about her most famous protagonist, Tom Ripley. “You need to cement your place in the pantheon,” he tells her, “and to do that you need one more Ripley. Structurally tight, emotionally deft, thrilling, dark beyond our wildest nightmares: classic Highsmith.”
The gift—to Highsmith’s delight—is a custom-made Bob Dozier “fighter” knife with steel-mirror polish. It’s a prize she hasn’t been able to obtain in Switzerland in this pre-Amazon era, and a welcome addition to her collection of rare weapons. “All these weapons are as beautiful as a Van Gogh or a Modigliani,” the wily crime novelist observes, “but they have beauty with a purpose.”
The dagger is portentous. Remember Chekhov’s remark about not introducing a weapon in a play if no one’s thinking of using it? Rest assured, the Dozier fighter will get used, though not in a way one’s likely to anticipate.
Murray-Smith’s forte is stylish dialogue, and she manages the machinery of melodrama expertly, at least for the first two acts. At the outset of Act III, though, the playwright attempts a coup de théâtre by transforming her urbane thriller (which has been reminiscent of Broadway and West End mysteries of yore) into an existentialist fantasia. This clumsy switch of dramaturgical gears yields nothing but confusion.
Has the action shifted from a Swiss mountaintop to the interior of Highsmith’s mind? Were the first two acts merely a figment of the protagonist’s imagination? Whatever the answer, Ridgeway is no longer the ambitious yuppie he seemed—he has become a hybrid of Mr. Ripley (charmingly vicious) and life’s most unwished-for visitor (you know whom I mean). Highsmith, we learn, is suffering from cancer (despite a lack of evident symptoms); and Ridgeway, brandishing that Dozier dagger, is an otherworldly emissary confronting her with the bad news of mortality, just as his medieval counterpart confronted Everyman in the great 15th-century morality play.
This New York City premiere is the work of Hudson Stage Company, a two-decades-old professional troupe from Westchester County. It’s wonderfully cast, with Scott and Petzold, skillfully directed by Dan Foster, finding ample dark humor in Murray-Smith’s script. Scott brings a light touch to Highsmith’s gruff, profane persona, and steers clear of the snares of stereotype. Petzold meets the challenge of Ridgeway’s two personalities with an appearance of effortlessness, though acting technique can’t clarify what’s obscure in the script.
Garrett Hood’s sound design features vintage show tunes evoking the pop culture of those years when Highsmith was in her prime. Andrew Gmoser’s atmospheric lighting and prop designer Deb Gaouette’s period artifacts enhance Fenton’s eye-appealing scenic design immeasurably. Prominent on the set are a collection of long-playing records in well-preserved slipcovers, a vintage typewriter (supposedly a 1956 Olympia Deluxe), and an old-school phone, reminding playgoers that, despite a couple of references to email, Highsmith’s story belongs to the pre-digital era.
It’s understandable that Switzerland—which amounts to two-thirds of a quite good play—didn’t land in New York immediately after its 2015 productions in Los Angeles and Murray-Smith’s native Australia. Yet Hudson Stage is making the most of what’s meritorious in the script, and it would be easy to recommend the production to anyone who favors this kind of show. The playwright’s own apparent uncertainty makes it hard to say exactly what kind of show this is.
The Hudson Stage production of Switzerland plays through March 3 at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St., between Park and Madison). Evening performances are at 7:15 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; matinees are at 2:15 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. For information and tickets, call (646) 892-7999 or visit 59e59.org.