It’s been a dozen years since L.A.-based writer-director Phyllis Nagy (“Mrs. Brown”) penned a stage adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel, “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” on commission by the U.K.’s Watford Palace Theater. It even preceded the Paramount film directed by Anthony Minghella. The play is finally getting its U.S. premiere in a most elegantly eerie production by the D.C. area’s Round House Theater. Round House specializes almost exclusively in literary adaptations under a.d. Blake Robison, and he has staged a nicely nuanced production that emphasizes the many shades of gray depicted in Nagy’s thought-provoking script.
An excellent cast is headed by local favorite Karl Miller as the shamelessly immoral Ripley. Miller maneuvers his character’s trail of deceit with keen insight and subtlety, unveiling by turns a suave and self-assured imposter, a scheming impersonator, and finally a calculating killer. Yet beneath the sinister façade is a pathologically envious and self-loathing sociopath capable of engendering sympathy.
It’s a performance that propels Highsmith’s intriguing plot of a ne’er do well, who has been approached by the wealthy parents of a spendthrift son who is idling in Europe on their liberal allowance. They ask Ripley to bring him home, but instead he develops other plans.
All this drama plays out on an angled and sparsely furnished set by Narelle Sissons that is embellished by a pair of large artworks, one of them an appropriate replica of the Gerard de Lairesse painting “The Judgment of Midas.” Unseen in front is a trough of water employed in act two’s climax, where it is effectively illuminated by Kenton Yeager.
Marcus Kyd projects the right touch of innocence and joi de vivre as the wastrel Richard Greenleaf, who is unaware that his lifestyle and identity are being coveted. Among other cast members, all of whom play multiple roles, Kaytie Morris earns compassion as Greenleaf’s steadfast girlfriend, while Naomi Jacobson makes the most of the tiny but important role of the unsparing Aunt Dottie. Sasha Olinick adds a rich dimension as the suspicious chum who unravels the plot, although not to his own advantage.
But “Ripley” is essentially a one-man show, which, in Round House Theater’s case, is a mesmerizing display of Miller’s meticulous revelation of his character’s special “talent,” the art of the bluff.