Performed in one hour and twenty minutes without intermission, Joanna Murray-Smith’s cleverly conceived Switzerland brought to us by the Hudson Stage Company at 59E59 deals with an imagined encounter between Patricia Highsmith at the end of her life in 1994 (she died a year later) and a young envoy, Edward Ridgeway, from her New York publisher who wants her to sign a contract to write another Tom Ripley novel.
She declines to sign, and not politely. He persists demurely, but with determination. They skirmish, and we anticipate that something serious and suspenseful will happen. But first we will have to meander through digressions on writers and writing. Finally at the end of Act I, Patricia taunts Edward with: “You put two people in the same room long enough and if you let their true selves emerge, chances are only one’s going to make it.” And thus we are set for a promising cat-and-mouse thriller. Or so we think.
The real center of this battle of wits is Highsmith’s famous creation, Tom Ripley, a master of transformation and amorality. Edward will also need this talent to pursue his irascible prey and cajole her to sign the contract to pen that new Ripley volume. At this point in her life, the novelist has sequestered herself from the world and now lives in the Swiss Alps (evoked wonderfully by scenic designer James J. Fenton) with her cat, her snails and various pistols and swords on the wall of her home. And thanks to Chekov, we know that if a pistol is hung on the wall, it will have to be used … eventually.
The stage is set with two opponents and so we might be tempted to anticipate a true battle to the death. They spar with their imaginations by creating a murder together. But before the real combat begins, Patricia engages in discursive digressions on the state of the male-dominated literary world, the real Highsmith’s cultural slurs about New York and its Jews, Catholics and Blacks, and biographical tidbits of her childhood.
Patricia remains abrasive and contemptuous throughout and is played wonderfully with unswerving rancor by Peggy J. Scott. Daniel Petzold’s Edward is disarmingly obsequious, adroitly dodging all of Patricia’s life-long bitterness with a charm that is guarded. It doesn’t take us long to sense that there must be something there, something of the writer’s famous character who too had a charm that hid murderous intent. For after all Patricia is an imagined Patricia Highsmith. And so, who is this attractive young Edward based on?
The actors and designers have contributed their talents admirably, with an evocative set and a sound track to heighten the tension appropriate to a thriller. Although adeptly directed by HSC’s co-founder, Dan Foster, Switzerland twists and turns upon itself and ends up in a tangle of abstruse questions about whose fantasy is at the heart of the play. While its premise to have a writer wrestle to the death with a fantasy is tantalizing, the pay-off here is less flavorsome than the real writer’s imagination.