Daniel Petzold and Peggy J. Scott in . Photo by Rana
by Julia Polinsky
Switzerland has a simple plot,
in which reclusive writer Patricia Highsmith (Peggy J. Scott), who lives in Switzerland, gets a visit from Edward Ridgeway (Daniel Petzold), a feckless young man sent by
her publisher to persuade her to sign a contract to write a third Ripley novel.
The clash of wills that follows changes over the 90 minutes of the play from
Highsmith having the power of life and death, to something completely
different, and unexpected.
you know nothing about Ripley, or Highsmith, it doesn’t really matter; the
tension between the characters is there, anyway. It certainly helps to know a
bit, though. In a nutshell, Highsmith wrote several books, including The
Talented Mr. Ripley, a very successful book about a self-promoting young
man who climbs the social ladder by killing people and assuming identities. The
book sold well. She wrote another Ripley book. It made money for the publisher.
Although she’s published other books, Highsmith has not written a third Ripley,
and the publisher wants her to get on it.
resists, to put it mildly. She’s unsympathetic but interesting; bigoted and
angry, she’s also erudite and articulate. Scoring points against Edward’s
pathetic powers of persuasion in language that puts his half-baked self to
shame, she goes for blood – literally, as well as figuratively. Or so it seems.
so it seems” is the catchphrase of Switzerland. Highsmith seems
to dismiss the young man’s pleas. He seems callow and not very bright, but very
interested in her writing. She seems indifferent to his admiration. You seem to
be watching a postmodern version of Deathtrap, and then you’re
changes, he changes, the show changes.
impossible to avoid story spoilers for Switzerland, but well
worth paying close attention as those changes happen – the author drops clues
along the way. Twist after twist, change after change; you can feel the turn of
the screws, the change of her attitude toward him, his toward her. And then
again. And again.
turns are in the text, though, and not enough in performance. If only the
performances had been better! Don’t be misled: the actors are both good, but
it’s hard to tell whether director Dan Foster held his actors back, or Scott
and Petzold just aren’t invested enough. Perhaps the actors’ distancing keeps
audiences from jumping out of their skins when certain things happen.
a play about an intellectual writer, with brainy-writer dialogue and much
discussion of writing, how writing works, and especially how writing evokes
emotion, both actors in Switzerland felt oddly detached, as if in the
process of learning the lines, they’d left out the writer’s heart. When
Highsmith says, “It’s not my job to pass judgment – It’s my job to persuade,”
it’s hard to believe her. When she asks Edward what makes him think he’ll get
out of there alive? When she lists the best poisons and how they work, as her
young guest eats the properly-prepared breakfast she’s served him? Scott’s
performance should have been uncomfortable and creepy; instead, she was brusque
and angry, even when talking about how we all have touches of evil, how she
likes murder, how powerful it is to stop life. And that young man? Petzold’s
performance goes from young and foolish to not-so-young and definitely not
foolish, but it feels imposed from outside, rather than emerging from his own
will. That’s a pity’; the play loses impact.
does have significant impact: scenic design, lighting, sound. James J. Fenton’s
absolutely terrific set works like a map of Highsmith’s mind, made visible in
her surroundings. Andrew Gmoser’s lighting reveals and conceals absolutely
perfectly in sync with the characters, and his use of the view outside the
window is masterful. It’s unusual that sound design (Garret Hood) adds such a
huge dimension to the play, but it’s well worth paying close attention to what
you hear, particularly in later scenes.
real Switzerland has little to do with the incidents in the plot, and
everything to do with being a writer, writing, and what it’s like to be in the
neutral center of the work – in effect, in Switzerland. The show is well worth
seeing just to watch what happens, but also for the pleasure of figuring out
the multiple reveals. You won’t feel neutral about it.
59E59, Theater B
59 East 59th St, between Park and
– Friday 7:15PM; Saturday 2:15PM & 7:15PM; and Sunday 2:15pm
$25-35 ($24.50 for 59E59 Members)