Writers love writing about writers. It must come from the old adage of “Write what you know,” but it seems as if every other story's protagonist is a writer. Sometimes this can be insufferable, especially when the author is trying to write in the voice of a famous author but failing to evoke their style. Other times, as in the new play Switzerland, now at the Geffen, the playwright's voice slips seamlessly into the story, crafting a compelling narrative that just happens to be about a writer.
The play follows Patricia Highsmith (Laura Linney), author of The Talented Mr. Ripley and many other novels about crime, over the span of a few days at her home in Switzerland, where she's retreated to escape the talons of the New York literary scene. Edward (Seth Numrich), a novice emissary from her publishing company, has just arrived, charged with the unenviable task of convincing Highsmith to write one last book starring her most famous character.
Murray-Smith's writing is fluid, adeptly switching between florid literary prose, as Highsmith extemporaneously drafts her next novel, and compelling dialogue between the play's two characters, who dance around one another figuratively and literally (the show tune “Happy Talk” from South Pacific plays a bit part in the show as well), each playing to win.
The play's 95-minute runtime moves along at a good clip, though it could benefit from an intermission, if for no other reason than to get the audience talking about what they're watching. This is, after all, a play about a woman who crafts murder mysteries, and there are plenty of clues (and red herrings) sprinkled throughout the script about what might be actually going on behind the seemingly serene veneer of the Swiss Alps. Enabling the audience to engage with each other at a midway point would reup their interest, and keep them hyper-invested as the play careens toward its finale.
Linney has a commanding presence onstage, but she doesn't quite live up to the ferocious reputation of Highsmith as described in the play's text. Her acerbic tone comes across more as delicate nips than gnawing bites — Linney is too likable to play a despot. However, as the skittish but charming Edward, her costar Numrich more than holds his own, shading the character with nuance that requires a second viewing to fully appreciate.
Director Mark Brokaw's staging in the intimate Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater (the smaller of the Geffen's two stages) keeps the audience in the thick of the action, and while the plot becomes a tad improbable at times, the play is quite the thrill ride.
But watching it is a mental exercise as much as it is an emotional journey. Switzerland inspires deep introspection about human nature and what we're capable of as a species, and that's more terrifying than any murder a crime author could concoct.
Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwd; through Apr 19. (310) 208-5454, geffenplayhouse.com.
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