Patricia Highsmith may never get the acclaim she deserves for her subversive writing and exploration of queer subjects, but now seems as good a time as any for her to have a revival and her name to get mentioned in the same breath as the other great hard-boiled thrillers like Dashiell Hammett. You may have seen a film adaptation of one of her works, like the more recent Carol directed by Todd Haynes, based on one of her other novels that features openly queer characters.
One of Highsmith’s most popular works, made into an immensely profitable and critically acclaimed film, Strangers on a Train, was adapted effectively by Craig Warner into a riveting stage play. His version takes a slightly different route than either the novel or the film, so don’t go in expecting a big chase sequence or a climactic sailing cruise. Instead, the play focuses more heavily on the relationship between our leads, Guy (Joe Clabby) and Bruno (Michael Mullen).
The premise is quite simple: two men, Guy and Bruno, meet on a train and after a few drinks decide to murder each other’s problem person: Guy’s ex-wife and Bruno’s father. Guy is an architect who’s about to have big success, and Bruno can’t live the lifestyle he craves because his father is holding back his money. Unfortunately for Guy, Bruno is deadly serious. The rest of the play becomes a bit of a cat-and-mouse story as Bruno continues to invade Guy’s life until Guy is willing to go through with his side of the bargain.
This production allows that relationship and those moments to take the spotlight, not focusing on large set changes or big ensemble scenes. The set design by Jeff G. Rack takes advantage of the small thrust stage in a clever way, with the base furniture serving as multiple rooms and locations with only minor adjustments. A small scrim center stage is utilized properly, with simple still images helping to establish new locations and concealing another stage area for later. This allowed for a fluidity throughout the play and for the tension to hold.
The lighting design by Derrick McDaniel is moody and captures some of the noir feeling of the 1950s, as well as featuring a couple of neat tricks, including adding details that are often ignored on stage. Nick Foran’s sound design also hits the mark, with the score underlying Bruno and Guy’s confrontations and dropping out perfectly when appropriate. The choices made and performances shaped by Jules Aaron are sharp, with a lot of strong subtle blocking choices, like allowing the audience to witness the darkness and depression of multiple characters on the stage in different locations at the same time.
The absolute highlight of the show, though, is Michael Mullen as Bruno. He absolutely wows with this performance. The tears flowing from his character are so real and intimate, bringing layers of subtext forward, and creating an empathetic character. Heightened even more by the size of the theatre, you can feel his desperation, his pain, his yearning to be accepted and loved, and his love for Guy.
Opposite Mullen are two more remarkable performances from Joe Clabby as Guy and Anica Petrovic as his wife Anne. Joe’s voice here sounds like it came right out of a 1950s film and his costume and demeanor fit like a glove. The relationships these two men have with the women in their lives are perfect foils for one another that are fascinating to watch.
The only negative is that there is lacking a trigger warning for self-harm/suicide/violence. A small warning would help anyone in the audience who may be emotionally or mentally affected by these actions on stage. Otherwise, this is a wonderfully performed and designed production that you don’t want to miss. Theatre 40 excelled with this production.
Strangers on a Train is showing January 18-February 18, Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2:00pm at 241 S. Moreno Drive in Beverly Hills. Tickets can be purchased here: http://theatre40.org