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A CurtainUp Review

Vanity. It would be a murder of vanity.... The trouble with that sort of murderer is that he can't keep quiet about it.... He wants to boast about it-and say something-do something-it may be something just slightly outré-which gives him away.
---Rupert Cadell

Sam Trammell (standing) and Chandler Williams

S. Trammell and
C. Williams
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Rope is one of those shows that we think we know better than we actually do. Many know its inspiration -- the Leopold and Loeb case -- and perhaps still more are likely to be familiar with the Hitchcock film it spawned. But very few of us have seen the play. (This is its first significant revival in New York in over 40 years. There have been two other shows about Leopold and Loeb reviewed by CurtainUp, which are linked below.) Though the central act -- two bright and too clever young men engaging in an act of murder as a putatively intellectual exercise -- is a constant, both the locale and the details are switched in each version -- the historical event, the film and the stage play.

Patrick Hamilton sets the play in London; his two villain/heroes, Brandon (Sam Trammell) and Granillo (Chandler Williams), are students at Oxford. It is another character, Rupert Cadell (Zak Orth), however, who is the true star (and hero) of the show. (This is as it was in the film, where Jimmy Stewart famously portrayed Rupert, though his character was drawn as the boys' former teacher rather than as their contemporary, as in the play.)

Having committed their crime, and deposited the body in a trunk in their parlor, the boys -- convinced they are above both the law and suspicion -- invite guests to a party, where they privately celebrate their "success" by serving dinner atop the very trunk in which the body has been placed. Brazenly, they have included the deceased boy's father (Neil Vipond) and aunt (Lois Markle) among their guests. The remaining visitors include a pair of young airheads who, it turns out, are a perfect match for one another (John Lavelle and Ginifer King), and the aforementioned Rupert Cadell, a adamantly effete poet. Also in attendance is the boys' servant (Christopher Duva).

Rope is never a whodunnit. The audience knows who did what from the get-go; and for the keenly suspicious Rupert -- the only guest with even the foggiest notion that something is amiss -- it's more a question of "what have they done?" There isn't even that much suspense in whether he'll figure it out; the pieces of the puzzle fall into place in short order. Rope is also not, as might be supposed, a trenchant examination of the bizarre criminal minds of Brandon and Granillo. The only real arc in the play is borne by Rupert, and it can be an intriguing one. Yet, even in Mr. Orth's hands, it runs out of steam before it reaches its conclusion (in which the darts with which each word has been delivered from Rupert's mouth all evening are replaced by bullets).

David Warren has directed the play tightly and generally in keeping with the original sensibilities (except that one imagines the original didn't include the explicit physical affection of the two boys, as this one does). The acting is solid throughout, and Warren has allowed each character to develop as fully as playwright Hamilton intended. Trammell and Williams are well matched (if a bit old), with the former's confidence dragging the latter's doubt along until Granillo passes out for the play's denouement. (In one of Rupert's many witty monologues, Hamilton has him, at the top of the third act, speak of the hour "when jaded London theatre audiences are settling down in the darkness to the last acts of plays, of which they know the denouement only too well".) Lavelle and King are spot-on, though their romantic subplot seems more like a footnote than a part of the action. This is the most conventional show I've seen at The Zipper, and the geometry of the stage is not especially well-suited to it, but the staging mostly overcomes the deficiencies. Curiously, however, set designer James Youmans hasn't managed to arrange a seat for all of the actors, which makes for an uncomfortable bit of musical chairs. The set as well as Gregory Gale's costumes are right out of the period sketchbook.

One final note: the advertised running time is two hours including two ten minute intermissions. The show actually runs the full two hours without those intermissions.

Never the Sinner in DC and NY
Thrill Me

by Patrick Hamilton
Directed by David Warren
with Christopher Duva, Ginifer King, John Lavelle, Lois Markle, Zak Orth, Sam Trammell, Neil Vipond and Chandler Williams
Set Design: James Youmans
Costume Design: Gregory Gale
Lighting Design: Jeff Croiter
Sound Design: Kai Harada
Fight Director: Rick Sordelet
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes with 2 intermissions
Zipper Theatre, 336 West 37th Street (8/9 Avs)
Telephone (212) 239-6200
Opening December 4, 2005, closes January 15, 2006 TUES - SAT @8, SAT @3, SUN @2 AND 7 (Christmas week: MON - FRI @8, WED and SAT @3, New year's week: MON - SAT @8, WED and SAT @3; $35-55
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 12/1/05 performance
Closing dated moved to 12/23/05 -- after 14 previews and 23 performances
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© 2005  Elyse Sommer.