Terry Johnson evidently has never come across a famous person he hasn’t wanted to put on stage. From Einstein to Marilyn Monroe (thinly disguised in “Insignificance”), Freud and Dali in “Hysteria” on to the gang of “Carry On” screen icons in “Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick,” writer-director Johnson has pioneered a new brand of what-if theater that his latest play, “Hitchcock Blonde,” takes to an extravagantly messy extreme. What if Hitch (played in this stage incarnation by uncanny look- and sound-alike William Hootkins) owed his careerlong obsession with blondes to an early, all-but-forgotten work that found the grand master of the imperiled heroine embarked on his own private Grand Guignol? The hypothesis raises infinitely more questions than it answers, especially as attenuated across three long, intricately linked acts that make a comparably structured play like “Arcadia” seem a narrative snap by comparison. Bowing at the Royal Court with commercial producers attached, play will do well on the strength of early intrigue alone, and a sustained sequence of third-act nudity (an apparent Johnson given after his stage version of “The Graduate”) won’t hurt, either. But there’s no denying that “Hitchcock Blonde” achieves a level of technical expertise rarely matched by a wildly ambitious script that could benefit from a sharp pair of scissors — and a heightened sense of purpose — if it is to leave anywhere near as hefty an imprint as Hitch himself.
“Arcadia” settled for shuttling between two time periods, whereas “Hitchcock Blonde” ups the ante to three, even if one of them — the earliest segment, set in 1919 — remains the preserve of the screen. At that time, or so the play argues, fledgling auteur Hitch was embarked upon a film featuring an unnamed blonde who just may have fed the director’s lifelong obsession with the fairer-haired members of the fairer sex. The “lost” movie has fallen into the hands in 1999 of middle-aged media professor and semiotician Alex (David Haig) and the young Irish graduate student, Nicola (Fiona Glascott), who have decamped together to a Greek island — Alex harboring lustful intentions, Nicola mostly academic ones. (But not too academic: This is a student who refers to Claude Chabrol as “Chablis.”)
And in 1959, Hitchcock is on a perilous erotic collision-course with Janet Leigh’s body double for the shower scene in “Psycho,” a figure known only, and archetypally, as Blonde (played by Rosamund Pike, a sizable London name following her eye-catching role in the most recent James Bond screen caper). As Blonde is struggling to fulfill the director’s famously strict demands onscreen, so, too, is she ensnared off it, trapped in a brutalizing marriage to a monosyllabic thug (Owen McDonnell) whom she would like wiped out — if only life, like the narratives favored by Hitchcock, worked that way.
One has to hand it to Johnson on this occasion for thinking big, in stark contrast to the abiding pointlessness of “The Graduate.” Perhaps as if to atone for that play’s flash of flesh, “Hitchcock Blonde” is as much a disquieting critique of voyeurism as a display of it, with Johnson — some have argued the same of Hitchcock — managing to have his feminist cake and eat it, too. (Still, women could well be galled by the implication that blondes exist to offer themselves up to predatory men, no matter what.)
The problem comes with the mighty templates against which Johnson’s script inevitably palls, its coopting of various themes from “Vertigo” and (especially) “Rear Window” lost in a murky parable of sexual desire that often resembles a failed variant on the pulpy eroticism of, say, James M. Cain. And though you can only admire writing that stretches its audience, too much of “Hitchcock Blonde” consists of set-piece soliloquies (for Blonde, usually) or elaborations of desire that, in affective terms, just do not land. (Nor does an eleventh-hour scare, presumably intended as “Psycho”-esque, that instead is pretty silly.)
As played by Haig (“Four Weddings and a Funeral”), who was never better than as the hapless comic at the center of Johnson’s superb “Dead Funny,” Alex rings true on movies (“the place we go to be shown those things we should not be looking at”), far less so laying bare the anatomy of heartbreak (“the endless path of exhaustion I once recognized as a life”) on which the play hangs. And in the pivotal director-actress passages, Pike’s verbally windy Blonde has to work overtime to exert anywhere near the authority of the properly portly Hootkins’ delicious Hitch, which transcends impersonation to become both a witty and scary portrait of the creator as possible destroyer.
Hootkins aside, “Hitchcock Blonde” also is blessed by a triumphant technical team, starting with designer William Dudley, whose shifting sets are seamlessly integrated into video sequences that allow the play a shower sequence all its own. Outdoing even his work on “The Coast of Utopia,” Dudley leads his design colleagues — lighting man Simon Corder among them — toward some as-yet-unnamed synthesis of stage and screen that is always exciting on its own terms, even when “Hitchcock Blonde” has run out of steam.