Time has been good to “Rope,” Patrick Hamilton’s 1929 play about two young Oxford students who thrill-kill a fellow student and then throw a party while his corpse lies stuffed in an onstage trunk. That concept is awfully high, but as evidenced by the Drama Dept.’s crackerjack revival, Hamilton injects his script with enough delicious suspense to rightfully merit the title of forgotten classic.
Directing the play’s first Gotham production in 40 years, David Warren shows a pitch-perfect understanding of how to pace a thriller. He grabs for the throat in the opening scene, in which murderous youngsters Brandon (Sam Trammell) and Granillo (Chandler Williams) stumble onstage with their victim. The writer places the first 10 minutes in the dark, and Warren mines that decision for its ability to make us pay attention.
There are ear-pricking pauses and intense whispers as the arrogant Brandon (played by Trammell as a chipper, half-crazed genius) convinces his partner that having a party with the corpse in the room will not only be the perfect cover, but also allows the killers to gloat over how they’ve fooled the idiot masses. (The two also are lovers, a nod to the Leopold & Loeb slaying).
In this exposition, Warren weaves a vivid tapestry of power, as we hear Brandon’s rapid-fire voice dart urgently about the room. Contrasted with Granillo’s stationary worrying, the aural clues give quick guideposts for appreciating “Rope’s” elegant character dynamics.
When the lights come on, Warren maintains his clear navigation of the power struggle that Hamilton layers beneath the intrigue. The production’s slow-burn pace builds palpable tension — especially since that telltale trunk always sits center stage — while the blocking delineates the fight for the upper hand.
Brandon strolls among his guest like a ringmaster, hovering over archetypes like Leila (Ginifer King), the silly shopgirl, and Sir Kentley (Neil Vipond), the harmless old aristocrat who babble about books and films. These moments have the breezy feel of a comedy, with effortless perfs from King and John Lavelle (as Raglan, Brandon’s awkward school chum) particularly pulling laughs.
The point, of course, is that the tone is a sick sham. Trammell’s subtle expressions remind us he’s constructed this charade to prove his superiority over women, the elderly, the wealthy, the world. Meanwhile, Williams’ eyes convey an ocean of horror when Sir Kentley selects hors d’oeuvres off the very trunk that, in a twisted bit of irony, contains his son.
These sadistic games would be captivating enough, but Hamilton’s writing launches beyond its genre with the introduction of Rupert Cadell (Zak Orth), a war-wounded poet whose blase, misanthropic mask gets permanently destroyed as he pieces together the truth about what is happening at this morbid cocktail hour.
Cadell is both the axis of the mystery and the centerpiece for the play’s moral argument about saving narcissistic societies from themselves. In unsophisticated hands, the character could easily become campy (he’s brilliant with a put-down) or sanctimonious. Happily, this production uses him to paint an indelible portrait.
With endlessly arresting blocking, Warren keeps Orth on a different level than the other cast members. If they stand, he sits; if everyone’s sitting, he mildly toys with his cane. Our eyes, in other words, are always drawn to him at just the right moment, so we can witness the approach of his terrible revelation.
And Orth, in a beautifully complex perf, knows just how to perch between sarcasm and genuine feeling. In a play that immediately names its killers, the compelling mystery becomes whether Cadell is really on to these boys or not.
Orth’s enigmatic reserve proves doubly effective when he finally has an emotional outburst. His catharsis gives rushing release to two hours of apprehension, while the power of his words grants the play philosophical resonance. By the time it reaches its somber conclusion, “Rope” has become a thriller that invites you to think deeply from the edge of your seat.