nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
December 2, 2005
“It is simply a question of scale… One gentleman murders another in a back alleyway in London for, let us say… the gold fillings in his teeth. They call that murder. But when the entire youth and manhood of a whole nation rises up to slaughter the entire youth and manhood of another, not even for the gold fillings in each other’s teeth, then society condones and applauds the outrage, and calls it war.”
Such is the phenomenon explored in Patrick Hamilton’s Rope, a thriller inspired by the sensational Leopold and Loeb case. Premiering on Broadway in 1929, the play is somewhere in between a socially-conscious drama where the audience is morally-indicted (such as J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls) and a boulevard murder mystery where the audience is titillated by the sly storytelling (a la Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap). While both of these plays were written a generation later, they nonetheless sprung to mind as I watched Rope, which is being presented by The Drama Dept. (et al) at the Zipper Theatre.
Director David Warren has wisely fashioned his production around Zak Orth, who plays Rupert, the lame, effete Oxford student and the play’s moral spokesman (quoted above), making an evening of theatre that is often electrifying—at least when Orth is on stage. But if the other sections of the play seem to lack tension, the fault is not necessarily with the director or his dependable cast.
British playwright/novelist Hamilton seems most interested in the moral inquiry model, so a lot of the details of the Leopold and Loeb crime that made it so horrifying have been stripped away (indeed, he denied that he was influenced at all by what has been called “the crime of the century”). Instead of two young men whose brutal and bloody murder of a 14-year-old boy was a further peak in their sexual and financial power play, Hamilton gives us two Oxford undergraduates who strangle a classmate just for kicks, hide his body in a chest, and then invite friends over (including the young man’s father) for dinner, which is incidentally served on said chest. The premise of the play is macabre, to be sure, but the suspense only lasts for so long—will someone open the chest and discover the body, or will someone…. not?
Warren has given his handsome male leads—Sam Trammell and Chandler Williams—a few light kisses and some other covert bits of affection, but that does make up for the anemic, exposition-heavy dialogue they must spout for the first 20 minutes. Still Trammell and Williams are game, turning in skillful and balanced performances as the arrogant, explosive Brandon and the soft-spoken and smoldering Granillo. Their initial party guests are the over-eager, hopelessly out-of-vogue Kenneth, and the lovely Leila, whose sole quality seems to be vivaciousness (both successfully played, as described, by John Lavelle and Ginifer King). Sir Johnstone Kentley, a sweet older gentleman, and his senile sister, Mrs. Debenham—the father and aunt of the dead fellow in the chest— follow shortly thereafter. (As Kentley, Neil Vipond has some particularly beautiful moments, such as his restrained distress when a phone call tells that his son has not returned home that night.)
But it is Orth’s Rupert, the last guest to arrive, who is the man to watch. He austerely concludes his speech above with “How, then, can I disapprove of murder, seeing that I have, in the last Great War, acted on these assumptions myself?... [Thus] I have proved that I don’t disapprove of murder. Haven’t I?” Clearly Hamilton intends for Rupert to be the audience’s stand-in: someone who is no longer shocked by anything. Yet as Rupert begins to suspect that his friend and school chum Brandon’s haughty wisecracks about there being a dead guy in the chest might be more than a sick joke, we witness our Everyman morph from a jaded know-it-all to a gulping, wide-eyed little boy.
This play is not a masterpiece, to be sure, but Warren and Orth have made Rope tauter than it actually is, a night in the theatre that digs its claws into one’s mind, haunting one for hours after.