Laura Linney and Seth Numrich in "Switzerland," now playing at Geffen Playhouse in Westwood, Calif. (Michael Lamont)
It’s common to hear great novelists described as “difficult”, “intense”, or “troubled”, but less frequently do members of the established literary pantheon gain a reputation for being outright terrible. Even so, that would be the best—even the only—way to describe the legendary mystery writer Patricia Highsmith. During the mid-twentieth century, Highsmith cranked out some of the greatest psychological thrillers ever put to paper, including “Strangers on a Train” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley”. She also happened to be a venomous racist and anti-semite, who seemed unable to muster anything other than contempt for her contemporaries, her audience, and the entirety of America itself. In the early ‘80s, Highsmith became so fed up with the American literary circle and its outright critical dismissal of her work that she permanently moved to Switzerland, where he she lived the rest of her life as an eccentric recluse. It is there, in Highsmith’s small house on the outskirts of Locarno, where noted Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith, chooses to stage her intimate, probing new drama “Switzerland”.
Adroitly directed by Mark Brokaw (“The Lyons”), “Switzerland” (playing now through April 19, 2015 at Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at Geffen Playhouse in Westwood, Calif.) opens with the prickly, drunken Ms. Highsmith (Laura Linney) being visited by Edward (Seth Numrich) a spry young worker-bee for her New York publishing house. Edward, himself an avid Highsmith fan, has been sent to convince Highsmith to write a new Ripley book, much to her chagrin. Though the author does her venomous best to cut Edward down to size and kick him out, even going so far as to insult his dead parents, the emissary proves utterly intractable—convinced that he alone knows the secrets of Highsmith’s writing better than anyone else in the world. After proving himself in an intellectual tete-a-tete, Edward begins to get under Highsmith’s skin, helping her to form the opening chapters of the hypothetical new Ripley book while systematically dismantling her aggressive defense mechanisms.
Being a play about a great writer of psychological thrillers, “Switzerland” changes around its late-second act from a grounded human drama to something more akin to the books its subject wrote. While I can’t give away the nature of this twist, suffice it to say that it sinisterly calls into question the motive behind young Edward’s visit. Though it was shocking enough, I must say that the simple tension of a wearied literary giant sparring with a fresh-faced fan over her the direction of a burdened legacy was more than enough to keep me captivated without the addition of any murderous hijinks. Indeed, this late-in-the-game parlor mystery angle only serves to distract from the razor-sharp dialogue and wonderfully tight back-and-forth which make the first two/thirds of the production stand out.
That being said, on the whole, “Switzerland” works like gangbusters. Linney gives a towering, fully realized performance as Ms. Highsmith—clearly working off tightly written material by the supremely talented Murray-Smith. The up-and-coming Seth Numrich is not quite as good, delivering some of his character’s more delicious monologues in an overly rehearsed stage voice, aiming for the back of the rafters in a theater about the size of a kindergarden classroom. Nevertheless, his enthusiasm and dedication to the role ultimately proves winning, and he clearly has a strong chemistry with Linney.
As such, “Switzerland” succeeds more than it fails, buoyed by a powerhouse leading lady and a whip-smart book—not to mention a wholly fascinating subject.