Company OnStage Presents Rope, One of Theater's Earliest Creepiest Plays

The setup:
Company OnStage presents one of theater's earliest, creepiest plays, Patrick Hamilton's Rope (1929). A real stage antique – a three-acter played in real time – this murder/mystery shocker retains enough shivers to have inspired Hitchcock to adapt it in 1948 into his failed “stunt” of a movie starring James Stewart, Farley Granger and John Dall.

Always setting himself a technical challenge to keep movie-making interesting, Hitchcock decided to film the play with a roving camera in a seemingly endless take, forgoing cinema's most basic building block: editing. In ten-minute spurts, more or less (the maximum amount of film-time a camera could hold), the camera prowls through the young men's apartment during the ongoing dinner party. The shooting was nightmarish, as furniture, lights, rugs, walls and actors had to be silently pushed out of the way to let the camera move by, then put back into place as it passed. Even those spun-glass clouds against the immense diorama background had to be moved to give the appearance of motion. Pre-planned as much as possible, the studio floor looked like a football coach's blackboard on steroids. One mistake, one flubbed line, one technician accidentally caught in the frame would require starting the entire ten-minute “take” again. Hitchcock got what he wanted, even fluidly, but the film lacks tension and suspense because we're at the mercy of that lugubrious moving camera. Precious seconds go by until it lands in revealing close-up. Hitchcock cheats twice, having to cut to the housekeeper and once to Stewart to keep the flow. But the film suffers under this cinema experiment in literalness.

The execution:
Viewed in one take, the play's fairly creaky, too, and isn't helped by this production's lack of atmosphere. An antique piece of furniture looks best when highly buffed and polished to a sheen, lacquered and throwing off light. Company OnStage's production has no polish to speak of, it's barely been wiped down.

Brandon and Granillo (Jonathan Moonen and Kamran Taherpour), rich spoiled schoolmates (and probable lovers), commit what they think is the perfect crime when they lure classmate Ronald to their Mayfair apartment and strangle him without motive, passion or clues. The play begins in complete darkness. The trunk bangs shut. We hear heavy breathing and see cigarettes lighted. Apparently what's been dumped into the trunk is Ronald. Brandon boasts, “A bloodless and noiseless murder, an immaculate murder. I have killed. I have killed for the sake of danger and for the sake of killing. And I am alive. Truly and wonderfully alive.” The sexual overtones are as heady as in an A&F ad.

To prove how clever and superior they are, they throw a buffet supper for some chums and Ronald's relatives before they motor back to Oxford. The chest center stage will be the dinner table. Granillo doesn't have Brandon's icy amorality, he's edgy and terribly uncomfortable, drinking himself into a stupor. Misanthropic friend Rupert (Weston Barnwell), poet and louche man-about-town, suspects something's afoot and, arched as a suspension bridge, sets forth to uncover it.

Young Barnwell single-handedly saves this production. Languid to the point of boneless, he explodes all the conventions. His hooded cobra eyes and emoticon eyebrows frame a face made to play Oscar Wilde. Ripe condescension drips off him like some exotic hothouse orchid, and he drops his aphorisms in rich velvet baritone. It's a sterling attention-getter of a performance. He takes the stage without trying, although Moonen steals some effective moments as he becomes more and more frantic when his Superman facade begins to crack. Rupert's penultimate monologue – a dyspeptic outburst on man's fate when told what time it is: “five and 20 to 11” – is inky and morose, and almost as creepy as what his friends have done.

Unfortunately, Barnwell's wondrous delivery of this disturbing speech goes unseen, because director Hilary Ritz stages it, inconceivably, in total darkness. Yes, Hamilton asks for the stage to be dark, but it's not supposed to be sightless. There's a fire in the fireplace to give off spooky shadows; here, you can't even see Rupert in his armchair. It's wrong, just wrong. Fortunately, Barnwell overrides such ham-fisted direction by turning the monologue into a splendid “radio” address, using his voice's prickly timbre to send unseen shivers.

Other things have been missed. Like Sir Johnstone Kentley's ragged, ill-fitting suit. He's a “Sir,” not Alfred Doolittle; he'd never wear such a splashy plaid suit, especially one that hasn't been tailored. When the lights do come on, they come on with blinding vengeance. Where's the atmosphere? It's supposed to be evening at home, not exterior day. And those accents! Except for plummy Barnwell, no one sounds as if he or she has been anywhere near Oxford. How about no accents at all?

The pacing's off throughout, larded with pregnant pauses where there should be none, or plagued by the actors' lagging, halting delivery. Although dark and haunting underneath, the dinner party ambience isn't Chekhov; it's supposed to sparkle with small talk and inanity, belying who's in that chest. While Taherpour does “drunk” very well, getting better at it the more tipsy he gets as the drama proceeds, he has a tendency to swallow his words, muffling his already slurred speech. And why the character of Mrs. Debenham (Daisy Durham) is even in this play is a mystery known only to playwright Hamilton. A guest of Sir Johnstone, she sits around and adds nothing. When asked any question, she pauses and then answers in a monosyllablic “Yes” or No,” completely disregarding the question. She's either stone deaf or an idiot. If Hamilton is playing a cruel joke on the bourgeoisie, it backfires terribly.

Durham is quite adorable as addled Debenham, but completely useless. Leila Arden, as ineffectual bubblehead Mary, gets better, too, as the evening proceeds, wrapping herself firmly in her character as if adding another layer of pearls. Her partner in crime is Dano (Kenneth Raglan), even more of a bubblehead. Decent but dumb, both of them are foils for Rupert's sharp little tongue, and their wide-eyed innocence is in peppy contrast to what's happened to Ronald.

The verdict:
If you're in a
Downton Abbey kind of mood and must hear “oh, rather!” or “fagged out” and references to Wodehouse, Frinton-On-Sea, and Gin and Italian, then Hamilton's antique mystery play with its shades of Nietzsche will fill the bill. If you require a more subtle look into man's dark heart where “pleasure has been found wanting,” I suspect Company OnStage's perfunctory reading (with Mr. Barnwell its one great exception) will only get you upset. That trunk center stage is getting rather full.

Rope continues through June 14 at  Company OnStage, 536 Westbury Square. Purchase tickets online or call 713-726-1219. $15-$18.
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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover