Mr. Ripley, aside from being Talented, is a complex character. So too was the author of said highly-mannered murderer– crime-fiction writer Patricia Highsmith—the subject of Switzerland (now playing at Los Angeles’ Geffen Playhouse through April 19), a new chamber play that brings actress Laura Linney back to her stage roots.
The two-hander (written by Joanna Murray-Smith and directed by Mark Brokaw) stars Linney as Highsmith–appearing with little to no makeup, grey-streaked hair pulled back into a low ponytail, and an ill-fitted, washed-out sweater—and Seth Numrich (War Horse) as Edward, a young emissary from Highsmith’s New York-based publishing house who seeks her out a year before her death. The basic premise: Edward travels to Highsmith’s home in the Swiss Alps to seek out the intimidating creative force (who lived out much of her life in Europe, and ultimately died of cancer in Locarno in 1995) in an effort to get the scribe to write another installment of her famed Ripley mystery series.
Set in Highsmith’s den and framed by a mural of tranquil, snow-capped mountains, the scenic design (by Anthony T. Fanning)–complete with a desk, a spiral staircase, a fireplace with crossed antique swords, and a chaise lounge–has everything is in its perfect place but it is the lady of the house who brings it all together. Highsmith had a reputation for being a cantankerous recluse, and this woman would make anyone feel unwelcome, but her sparring partner Edward is, despite a lack of confidence, unfazed.
Linney and Numrich are both convincing as the duo, if overplaying a bit in the earlygoing. What begins as amusing, I-can’t-believe-she-just-said-that dialogue for Highsmith, for example, grows more redundant as it continues, which could also be attributed to the play’s drawn-out pacing. But, as Switzerland continues on, the power dynamic shifts—also conveyed effectively through staging, like when Edward stands on the spiral staircase, suggesting he has the higher ground over Highsmith—revealing that Highsmith’s brashness and Edward’s mild-manneredness are really choices made by the characters to put on a front. These shifts are intriguing, to be sure, and we know they’re coming, due to some effective music and lighting, but they occur a bit too sharply–this is especially true of Edward, who goes from mild-mannered to highly confident overnight.
That said, the play also grows with intrigue as it moves forward, pulling back the layers of its two characters to reveal their true selves—neither being who they initially appeared to be (Highsmith reveals herself as vulnerable while Edward is deliciously self-assured) and the result is gripping. Murray-Smith’s intimate drama could have benefited from smoother transitions, but in the end, it pays off with a twist that rivals those in Highsmith’s writings. Rivals, but never exceeds. No one can really do it—intrigue, twists, moral ambiguity, murder—like Highsmith did. B