Few things are more delectable than watching someone get away with murder. Especially if they do so with enviable panache.
Tom Ripley, the chameleon-like sociopathic hero of Patricia Highsmith’s novels, is one such reprobate you loathe yourself for loving. Scheming, audacious and just plain lucky, Ripley elegantly defies morality and convention. His homicidal hoodwinks were the subject of five novels, a 1999 movie starring Jude Law and Matt Damon, and a 1998 British stage play by Phyllis Nagy.
The theatrical version, The Talented Mr. Ripley, makes its American debut at Round House Theatre in Bethesda under the steady direction of Blake Robison. Visually stunning and engagingly acted, the production draws you into the feigned and fragmented world of Ripley, but does not satisfyingly capture the wry perversity of Highsmith’s prose.
Set in 1955 New York and Italy, Mr. Ripley follows the increasingly byzantine cons of Tom Ripley (Karl Miller), who goes from relatively harmless scams to something far more lethal and cunning after a shipping magnate, Herbert Greenleaf (John Lescault), dispatches Ripley to Italy to track down his indolent son Ricky (Marcus Kyd). Ripley not only finds Ricky—he becomes him.
Rather than transferring the novel to the stage, Miss Nagy creates an elaborate framework for the piece, combining elements from multiple novels and fleshing out people and backstories only glimpsed in The Talented Mr. Ripley. She turns what was enigmatic and lightly-sketched into a boatload of exposition that makes Ripley into an exhaustive psychological case study.
What was breezily amoral is now heavy with explanations and declamatory speeches by Ripley and the people he manipulates. Even Narelle Sissons’ painterly set seems lugubrious, with shadows looming like a parody of an Alfred Hitchcock movie and a raked ramp forcing the actors to hump up and down like laborers. What are we supposed to glean from the steep rake—that Ripley is crooked? To weigh things down further, it rains onstage and there’s even a canal of water that is used effectively in the first act but spuriously in the second—guess they felt they had to get their money’s worth.
The play is awash in dopplegangers, ranging from Ripley’s daft Aunt Dottie (Naomi Jacobson)—her name isn’t “Dottie” for nothing—to his defiantly effeminate friend Marc Priminger (Sasha Olinick). This device undercuts the essential eeriness of the impoverished Ripley’s assuming the identity of his expansively rich friend Ricky—which is the perfect mirroring of psychopath versus narcissist.
The set-up in the first act is good fun, as we slowly come to realize that Ripley is not an IRS auditor, but someone who impersonates others just to yank his victim’s chain. His meeting with Herbert Greenleaf and his cancer-ravaged socialite wife Emily (Naomi Jacobson) has the sophisticated twist of Six Degrees of Separation, but it all gets murky and dull when Ripley goes to the Italian Riviera and falls under the spell of Ricky. The homoerotic strains of his attraction to Ricky seem forced and overbearing, especially in his boorish treatment of Ricky’s girlfriend Marge (Kaytie Morris).
Mr. Miller makes for a magnetic Ripley, anxious and edgy yet charming when he needs to be. Mr. Miller plays Ripley like a Rat Pack Hamlet, all style and surface flash with a hyped-up undercurrent of greed and envy. As his nemesis, Mr. Kyd exudes that effortless, offhanded ease that bespokes a rich playboy who has never wanted for anything.
Mr. Miller and the cast possess the acting chops to bring out the rich, black humor of Mr. Ripley and the dark pleasures of looking at someone slip in and out of personas and alibis as sleekly as donning an Italian silk suit. Pity they are saddled with an extreme, over-ambitious script that renders Ripley nothing more than an unsympathetic identity thief.
The Talented Mr. Ripley
Play by Phyllis Nagy, adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel
Directed by Blake Robison
Produced by Round House Theatre
Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard
The Talented Mr. Ripley plays thru Sept 26, 2010.
Click here for details, directions and tickets.
THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY