An editor from a New York publishing house arrives in Switzerland to convince the reclusive and notoriously difficult Patricia Highsmith to write another Tom Ripley novel. That intriguing premise is the subject of Joanna Murray-Smith’s “Switzerland,” which opened Thursday at Off Broadway’s 59E59 Theater under the auspices of the Hudson Stage Company. The play was first performed in 2014 at the Sydney Theatre Company.
For the first few minutes of “Switzerland,” you might be reminded of the recent Broadway hit “The Lifespan of a Fact,” based on a real-life incident regarding a persnickety fact-checker and a recalcitrant writer who harbors an odd notion of what constitutes nonfiction. “Lifespan” made total nonsense of how the magazine world works; in fact, despite its many references to writer John D’Agata and editor Jim Fingal, much of the play was pure fiction.
Murray-Smith (“Honour” on Broadway, 1998) has a much more grounded idea of how things like articles and books get published. In “Switzerland,” the editor named Edward (Daniel Petzold) talks like he might actually work for a publishing house. Although he looks and sounds a little young for such an assignment, it makes sense that no one else at his place of employ wanted to go to Switzerland after Highsmith (Peggy J. Scott) physically threatened the life of the last editor who made the trip.
But seeing “Switzerland,” you might also understand why the “Lifespan” authors (Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell) felt the need to hoke up their drama with so much publishing malarkey, beginning with a fact-checker and an editor who fly across the country to make sure their writer hasn’t committed libel, among lesser crimes.
Editing and writing are not inherently theatrical activities; they require solitude, and an audience is anathema to the process.
“Switzerland” has the advantage that its subject isn’t a pretentious writer of magazine essays who believes he’s really writing Pulitzer Prize-worthy nonfiction. Murray-Smith’s subject is the racist, anti-Semitic, lesbian, misandric, cat-adoring, chain-smoking, alcoholic and utterly brilliant writer of “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “Strangers on a Train” and other classics of suspense, apprehension and murder.
It’s very possible that the real Highsmith was not a female Oscar Wilde whose every exquisitely wrapped utterance deserved repeating. Murray-Smith makes Highsmith sound intelligent, but too often her bigotry and quirks, like raising a small farm of snails that she lets loose in her guest’s bed, register as little more than distinctly unpleasant.
The slowly evolving plot for the new Ripley novel is also something less than ingenious. Murray-Smith almost makes up for those deficiencies by delivering a good twist before the final curtain. Petzold handles the switch with great aplomb.
Scott also is a delight to watch. She doesn’t look like the real Highsmith, but reminded me of Pauline Kael if the late film critic were having a very bad day.
Dan Foster directs.