A Cat-and-Mouse Game Not Worthy of Patricia Highsmith in Switzerland
A beloved crime novelist and her most famous creation come face-to-face in a metaphysical dark comedy by Joanna Murray-Smith.
During the final decades of her life, the crime novelist Patricia Highsmith lived secluded in Locarno, Switzerland, tucked away from a world that treated her like a famous author in favor of a country that respected her as an artist. The setting of Joanna Murray-Smith's Switzerland is Highsmith's chalet, where the walls are lined with antique hunting knives and Civil War-era pistols, and where the sunset always seems to glow an ominous purple. In short, it's the perfect location for a tense cat-and-mouse game where the identities of the hunter and the hunted are consistently shifting.
Switzerland is not that play, though. Far from a tense, edge-of-your-seat thriller with twists that make you question everything that's come before, it is, in fact, the complete opposite: a genial, suspense-free two-hander that aims to surprise but cuts itself off at the pass every time. At least Dan Foster's Hudson Stage Company production at 59E59 is kind of fun, making for a reasonably diverting 80 minutes.
The two characters are Highsmith herself (Peggy J. Scott), a miserable old racist on the way out, and Edward Ridgeway (Daniel Petzold), an underling from her publishing house who has come bearing cans of Campbell's soup, jars of peanut butter, an ancient knife for Highsmith's collection, and a contract. Edward has been tasked with getting Highsmith to agree to write one last novel featuring her most famous protagonist, the effortlessly suave psychopath Tom Ripley. But Ripley's cantankerous creator is playing hardball.
Of course, once Highsmith discovers that Edward has a little bit of a writer within him, she comes up with a devilish proposition: She'll sign on the dotted line only if he can come up with a plot that makes for a fitting finale to her famous "Ripliad." That's when things start to spiral.
Anyone with even a passing familiarity of crime fiction knows the direction that Switzerland is headed, and anyone who notices an alliterative allusion to Highsmith's character in Edward's last name will be able to figure out the metaphysical twist in the final scene. Getting to that point isn't really a slog, but the plot is parboiled. This is no fault of Foster's production, which more or less gets the tone right, but that of the text, with its leaden dialogue, ponderous exposition, and overall obviousness.
Fortunately, the two performances are fun enough to help us overlook the textual shortcomings. Scott really feasts on the acerbity of Murray-Smith's dialogue, and while Petzold is a little too nebbish for a character who's supposed to have some stylishness about him, it's pretty clear that he and Scott are having a grand old time going toe-to-toe. Better material would give the production an edge, but the enjoyable performances keep Switzerland from being completely neutral.