Though the name on the marquee of the sold-out run of this world premiere at Connecticut’s Hartford Stage is Kevin Bacon, the real stars of “Rear Window” are the windows — not to mention the disappearing walls, the revolving floors and the epic, multi-storied tenement on stage, designed spectacularly by Alexander Dodge.
Like Alfred Hitchcock’s famous single set of the 1954 film (the largest indoor set in Paramount’s history at the time), place is as primary as plot. Both Hitchcock and playwright Keith Reddin take the 1942 short story by Cornell Woolrich as their atmospheric starting point, then go their separate ways in deepening the mysteries of urban isolation, sexuality, madness and murder in this post-war setting.
Hitchcock (and screenwriter John Michael Hayes) added romance, warmth and wit to their adaptation. Reddin incorporates Woolrich’s personal dark history into the character of crime writer Hal Jeffries (Bacon), holed up in his apartment with a broken leg and peering into the drama of the daily lives around him. Director Darko Tresnjak, in his first new play project since nabbing a Tony Award for the musical “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” collaborates with many of the same design team here to create another stylish world of intrigue and death.
But this time there’s an emotional chill in the air despite the sultry summer-before-A.C. era of the play. The heightened melodrama of stage noir has its limits, and though the show boasts stunning production values, a star presence and a brand name title, cleaner plotting and deeper connections are needed for the project to resonate with audiences and for the production to move forward.
Bacon, in his first major stage role since his solo turn on Broadway in the 2002 production of “An Almost Unholy Picture,” plays another solitary man, this one a sexually repressed alcoholic writer who is filled with guilt, shame and loneliness and on the edge of a nervous breakdown. As a man who’s more than a little in love with death, Bacon is properly dissipated, depressed and tormented. But his decline into possible madness is dramatically unrelenting and at times tedious: Another drink, another peek, another bit of self-loathing and bang, someone’s dead. Even redemption is a passive activity.
There’s no Grace Kelly or Thelma Ritter characters in Woolrich’s original story — or here — to lighten this heavy load. Instead there’s Sam (a very good McKinley Belcher III), who plays a daytime house-helper to Jeffries with some mystery of his own. Sam tries to rescue the writer from himself but instead becomes entwined in his employer’s death wish. The character allows Reddin to introduce elements of race, police corruption and homosexuality — but only so far as allowed in this heightened and melodramatic story.
John Bedford Lloyd is solid as a bully detective, who seems more determined to harass Sam than pursue Jeffries’s murder theories. Robert Stanton as the alleged murderer-husband and Melinda Page Hamilton as his victim-wife also fulfill the fevered acting style of the hothouse piece. In addition, there are 11 unspeaking ensemble roles that fill the apartments in vivid tableaus.
But in the end, what stays with audience members is the style and scope of the show: Linda Cho’s 1940s outfits, York Kennedy’s lighting, Jane Shaw’s wall of sound and Sean Nieuwenhuis’ cinematically-charged projections. All make Woolrich’s lurid world worth a look — but not a linger.