L.A. Theater Review: Laura Linney Plays Patricia Highsmith in ‘Switzerland’

Switzerland review Laura Linney Geffen

Writers of crime fiction are rarely as brutal or twisted as the characters they create. But meet Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995), by general agreement a foul-mouthed misanthrope who spent decades detailing the psychotic narcissism lurking in humanity’s dark heart. The Geffen Playhouse sketch of her, portrayed by Laura Linney in “Switzerland,” will likely send spectators giddily speeding back to such novels as “Strangers on a Train” and Anthony Minghella’s movie adaptation of “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” But playwright Joanna Murray-Smith hasn’t wrapped Highsmith in a gripping dramatic situation, so “Switzerland” stays stubbornly stuck in neutral.

Anthony T. Fanning’s set is certainly appropriate to embittered self-exile, a heavy-walled bunker decorated with antique weaponry which could, in a pinch, be used to repel invaders. A 140-degree mural of the Swiss Alps curves around the back wall as a reminder of the natural lush life on which Highsmith (Linney) has turned her back in her latter days.

Chain-smoking and growling, she’s attempting to work her way out of writer’s block when affable schmo Edward Ridgeway (Seth Numrich, the original star of Broadway’s “War Horse”) golly-gees his way into the inner sanctum. He’s been sent by her U.S. publisher to obtain a contract for one more Ripley yarn, continuing the adventures of the charming, chameleon-like expatriate with expensive tastes and a talent for murder to satisfy them. (The previous emissary got scared off when he awoke to find his hostess holding a knife to his neck.)

More’s going on than meets the eye, especially as Edward starts sprucing up, his execrable French becoming parfait and his true Ripleyesque mission revealed. (The talented Mr. Numrich is almost too perfectly cast here, his skills effortlessly encompassing both stumblebum and trickster.) Lap Chi Chu’s expressionistic lighting flashes and John Ballinger’s exquisite, Bernard Herrmann-tinged underscoring keep promising a rabbit hole of perverse motivations and chills.

Which never arrives. Murray-Smith’s confrontations decline into a dispiriting set of musings on the art of writing and the deficiencies of the American character, leavened here and there by a quirky biographical detail (the writer’s “mental torturer” of a mother) intended as explanatory telegraphy. Pat and Ed start “collaborating” on a juicy murder for the next book, but there’s never much at stake in their duel, no urgency and no real threat.

It’s also unequally matched. Linney’s Southie Lady Macbeth in “Mystic River” notwithstanding, she is not to the loathsome manner born, and her efforts here to embody a elderly, bigoted hag are marked with strain and diminishing returns.

Her Highsmith’s misanthropy is all surface, never seeming the product of a tumultous, ruthless twentieth century inspiring some of modern literature’s most acrid output. Even terminal illness doesn’t shake Linney to the core. She’s on the outside, looking in.

The delivery also seems off. One shouldn’t have to work hard to castigate “pansy publishers in Jew-town,” or deem young people “deluded, silly little fuckers”; surely such venom will deliver itself. Where Highsmith would wield a stiletto, helmer Mark Brokaw has Linney spitting out barbs with an energy smacking of desperation, way out of proportion to the threat nebbishy Edward initially poses. The overkill and lack of variety become tiring to witness.

L.A. Theater Review: Laura Linney Plays Patricia Highsmith in 'Switzerland'

Geffen Playhouse, Los Angeles; 120 seats; $119 top. Opened, reviewed March 13, 2015; runs through Apr. 19. Running time: 1 HOUR, 35 MIN.

Production

A Geffen Playhouse production of a play in one act by Joanna Murray-Smith.

Creative

Directed by Mark Brokaw. Sets, Anthony T. Fanning; costumes, Ellen McCartney; lighting, Lap Chi Chu; composer and sound, John Ballinger; fight choreography, J. David Brimmer; production stage manager, Cate Cundiff.

Cast

Laura Linney, Seth Numrich.

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  1. E Bravo says:

    I disagree entirely. I found the play to be utterly engaging. My feeling is that many people didn’t get it. Yes, “The previous emissary got scared off when he awoke to find his hostess holding a knife to his neck.” to quote your piece, but when the man claiming to be Edward Ridgeway emerges from his slumber after agreeing to write the murder scene, he has a red gash on his neck, made with the very knife that he brought to Highsmith, right after she’s gone up to visit him with the knife..

    That man was not Ridgeway, who really did exist, and was in fact orphaned as a youth; Seth Numrich played a character, who was, RIpley incarnate. That is why he was able to write the murder scene so much like she would write it, and why it is he who is writing the book at the end while Highsmith lies post-stabbing. Numrich’s transformation was exquisite to watch as it was totally unexpected. I don’t think many people got that.

    Highsmith doesn’t want to write another Ripley novel because that would mean that she must bring Ripley to life, and that is what she does. What an awesome play. Whoever didn’t enjoy it, just didn’t get it.

    And as for Linney’s portrayal… everything barb she slings at ‘Edward’ I want to say to some young Americans I know. Her insight into the literary world and its descent is unrivaled. I was entranced the entire 90 minutes. No intermission was necessary. Linney was as awesome, as was Numberg. He can’t speak French correctly at the outset; at the end, he is fluently evil. Ripley.

  2. David B. Green says:

    I agree your observations 100%. Poorly conceived play and not great casting in the lead.

    Re: SWITZERLAND: Having Patricia Highsmith encounter and interact with her chief character and creation via a proxy is a great theatrical concept, however, it should and would have worked better had the scene not been at the end of her life in 1994 in Switzerland.
    Moreover, it should have been set in the early to mid seventies & eighties, when she was living in Moncourt, France. Her UK publishers at that time hired an actor to stalk her through London streets while posing as Tom Ripley. She found this very much to her taste and took a shine to the actor portraying. Moncourt (near Fontainebleu) was a surrogate for the fictional Villeperce sur Seine home of Ripley in Ripley Underground and the remaining novels in the Ripliad series. Something theatrical, dark and disturbing could really have been made from that. I may do it some day.

    BTW: My name is David B, Green but I write under OSCAR PHELPS as it is the primary character in my series of international crime fiction novels. The first two of which are currently being adapted to screenplay for a movie by a US/UK/Canadian international co-production company.

    DBG

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