Some highly stimulating cinematic effects enliven “Hitchcock Blonde,” an otherwise pedestrian attempt to deliver some Hitchcock-like thrills while also commenting on the famous director’s penchant for beautiful blondes. Playwright Terry Johnson, who also directs this American premiere at South Coast Rep, can’t quite find the humanity in the dry characters he crafts, including Hitchcock himself, resulting in a show that possesses a sharp visual impact but a dull emotional and intellectual one.
Johnson’s play has two storylines. One, set in 1999, follows a Hitchcock-adoring film professor Alex (Robin Sachs) and his student Jennifer (Adriana DeMeo) as they spend the summer on a Greek island examining newly discovered reels from an unfinished film by Sir Alfred. The scraps of celluloid, they begin to believe, just might provide essential clues to Hitchcock’s obsession with the fair-haired.
The other plotline is set 40 years earlier, in 1959, the year Hitchcock shot his most memorable scene of all, the shower sequence from “Psycho.” This story depicts an imagined relationship between Hitch (Dakin Matthews) and a beautiful blonde body double (Sarah Aldrich), presumably the one who will stand in for Janet Leigh and have the slashing of her naked body indelibly ingrained into popular culture.
With Hitchcock’s misogyny at issue, the play explores the dynamics of sex, power, fantasy and violence. The more contemporary tale does so with plenty of intellectual discourse, as well as a couldn’t-be-more-typical story of seduction and rejection. But the Hitchcock story gets, well, Hitchcockian, as the blonde murders (or does she?) her unspeaking, cigarette-smoking boor of a husband (Martin Noyes).
The two pieces of this play never come together with any real power and, to be blunt, the teacher-student story, despite very capable performances from the actors, could be chopped out of this work to the benefit of the end result.
Except, that is, for the way designer William Dudley incorporates video projections to create the environment of the Greek island and the stunning holographic sequence in which Alex imagines the young woman taking an outdoor shower.
The lush blue of those scenes contrasts beautifully with the black-and-white backgrounds Dudley uses for the Hitchcock scenes, including a fantastic projection of 1950s Los Angeles seen through the slits of Venetian blinds.
The spectacular effects in this production employ projections as kinetically and theatrically as you’ll ever see them, and Dudley’s design for this play deservedly won the Olivier Award (the British version of the Tonys).
If only the play were as interesting.
It does perk up in the middle as the Blonde wields a knife and an iron. And Matthews’ mimicry of Hitchcock — the delivery so dry and calculated, the tummy so obtrusive, the chin so tilted upward, the lip so curled — is not just admirable but fun. (Matthews also did a dead-on Dick Cheney last year for “Stuff Happens” at the Taper.)
But Hitchcock the director understood that an audience had to connect with characters, even generic or unsympathetic ones, for a story to build, and he always found ways to make that happen, often by putting us into their perspective with the camera.
That degree of p.o.v. manipulation is something theater as a form just can’t do easily, and Johnson doesn’t find a substitute. And that makes his characters — who aren’t especially believable to begin with — feel exceedingly remote.
Hitchcock was a master at taking strips of celluloid and making the events depicted on them feel like they were happening before you, in real time. Johnson employs live actors, and yet they feel a million miles away.