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Daniel Petzold and Peggy J. Scott in .                             Photo by Rana Faure.


                          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.


If 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.


Highsmith 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.


“Or 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 not; she changes, he changes, the show changes.


 It’s nearly 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.


Those 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.


For 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.


What 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.


The 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 Madison

Tuesday – Friday 7:15PM; Saturday 2:15PM & 7:15PM; and Sunday 2:15pm

Tickets $25-35 ($24.50 for 59E59 Members)

Box office 646-892-7999