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.