Sunday, October 7, 2012

Theatre review : "Rope" at Pittsburgh Playhouse's The Rep-Sunday, 7th October 2012

The Rep at Pittsburgh Playhouse offers nearly two uninterrupted hours of superbly staged and performed suspense: Rope by Patrick Hamilton.The title and premise are probably best known in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 version of the 1929 English play, although they differ in several respects. This time the characters are upper- class Americans in Boston. And, unlike the movie, the three principal characters are clearly gay.

Guest director Elmore James has fashioned a compelling, well-paced, and deliberately dark evocation of the lurid tale without it ever becoming gruesome. And the all-Pittsburgh cast makes the most and the best of it, especially Pitt grad John Steffenauer and Point Park alum Ryan K. Witt in two major roles.

The play dwells on talk circling around the centerpiece, a coffin-like wooden chest on which dinner is served while inside lies the bloody carcass of freshly killed Ronald Kently, garroted by his socially privileged former classmates Wyndham Brandon and Charles Granillo. Brandon is the twisted mastermind behind the evening’s events, seeking to savor the satisfaction of motiveless murder, spurred by some of Nietzsche’s philosophy, which, as you may remember, inspired mass murderer Adolf Hitler. One guest at the dinner is poet and sometimes friend Rupert Cadell who has seemed to espouse Nietzsche-spurred amorality. Moreover, playwright Hamilton’s excellent premise implies that Brandon and Granillo’s high social standing makes them believe that they have a right to do anything they want. 

The story has often been described as analogous to a real-life and death one involving Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb just a few years before this play was written. Oddly,director James does not refer to that in his program notes.

The play’s tension derives from expecting the discovery of the crime and how or if Brandon and Granillo can pull off their deliberate provocation without falling apart. Most of Hamilton’s dialogue sounds straightforward rather than deliberately intellectual. Once Brandon has made clear what led him to the violent act abetted by his more fragile lover, chatter among the guests dominates at first, including playful speculations about violent crime. Later Rupert expounds on his beliefs in Hamilton’s most eloquent and evocative writing, getting the closest in the play to providing substance.

Those lines are delivered superbly by Ryan K. Witt whose characterization may seem Oscar Wildish but successfully so. Witt displays inner strength and sharp intelligence within a seemingly weak body. Meanwhile John Steffenauer’s Brandon makes the man’s self-importance and control thoroughly convincing. In this compelling portrait, even his reactions to other people’s words remain masterful.

Director James has expertly done much with the lighting to emphasize evil heavily breathing in the shadows or having sudden glare as conversations seek to sparkle or as revelations emerge from the gloom.

However James did not do nearly enough to suggest an actual dinner. The  food looks like canapes and snacks. The guests do not, tellingly, carve meat or sink their teeth into something seriously edible or stuff their mouths with a real meal. Yes, they nibble, even as much of their conversation has tiny fragments of thought, a good point, I suppose. But a choice which works against some of the premise.

However, this production stays so well conceived and played that you could come away admiring how this not-very-complex script gets expertly served.

Rope continues through Sunday, October 14th at Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Avenue, Oakland. 412-392-8000 or

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