by Stu Brown
The stage adaptation of Rear Window, receiving its world premiere at Hartford Stage, is an unfulfilling theatrical presentation. It closely follows the short story written by Cornell Woodrich rather then the Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name. Gone are the characters played by Grace Kelly and Thelma Ritter. The play still retains is voyeuristic main character and murder mystery core. However, this is more a low-key character study between the two central protagonists. It is grittier then the movie and addresses post-World War II racial prejudices.
The show starts off with a cinematic flourish. A rousing, suspense tinged musical introduction greets the audience as the title of the show is projected above the stage. The curtain rises onto a claustrophobic looking apartment where crusading reporter, Hal Jeffries (Kevin Bacon), is laid up with a broken leg. We are quickly introduced to Sam (McKinley Belcher III), an African-American young man who met Jeffries the previous night in a bar. After a few drinks he convinced the newspaperman to hire him to help out while in his current condition. Through their sometimes contentious talks we slowly learn about each. Jeffries drinks and smokes too much and ferrets out the injustices in the world for his readership. He was once married and deeply in love. Sam is polite, dutiful, but more of a mystery as are his real motives for being there.
Each night, after Sam has left, Jeffries satiates his curiosity with people by peering out his window to the building complex across the way. There, among the humanity in the adjacent apartments, he fixates on one specific dwelling -- that of a sulking wife and her meek, attentive husband. Soon the wife is missing. Did her husband Lars Thorwald (Robert Stanton), as Jeffries thinks, murder her? Or not? Here, the suspense is ratcheted up as Sam and the police become involved in the mystery, which for audience members not familiar with the story, concludes with a satisfying and suspenseful ending.
The adaptation of the Woolrich story by Keith Reddin keeps the action sparse with little dramatic tension when the characters are within the confines of Jeffries’ dreary apartment. There is a great deal of chatter among the cast, but little else of consequence happens. The play blossoms only when we are allowed to peer into the world of neighboring residences and the potential murder mystery machinations begin to unfold.
Kevin Bacon as Hal Jeffries is subdued and introspective, lighting cigarettes, downing scotch and being thoroughly irascible. We feel his inner rage, but it all doesn’t add up to be an overly interesting character. On the other hand, McKinley Belcher III is impulsive, dynamic, and emotional as Sam, a twenty-something man looking for his place in society where racism reigns. Robert Stanton as Lars Thorwald is sufficiently creepy and seemingly maladjusted as a would-be murderer. John Bedford Lloyd’s Detective Boyne is hard-boiled with an unforgiving racist streak. Melinda Page Hamilton, in the dual role of the brooding Mrs. Thorwald and Hal Jeffries’ former wife, is convincingly disconsolate as the former and glamorous and winning as the latter.
The real star of the production is scenic designer Alexander Dodge. He has created an eye-popping set that literally rises and falls to reveal the side of an apartment building that Hal Jeffries spies on. It is an artistic as well as breathtaking mechanical achievement. Lighting designer York Kennedy and sound designer Jane Shaw also add a cool film noir mood to the play. Sean Nieuwenhuis’ projection design, when used sparingly, contributes winningly to the overall vibe of the show. When overused, as in the latter part of the play, it creates an unnecessary cinematic style.
Director Darko Tresnjak is hampered by a play with two very different sets. When in the apartment of Hal Jeffries the actors primarily talk as they move from one side of the stage to the other. Their routine becomes somewhat monotonous for them and the audience. When the opens to reveal the adjoining back end of the adjoining apartment building the action perks up. The vignettes within each dwelling are intriguing (even though they are hard to see if seated off to the side of the theater) and keep our interest. However, as the production proceeds it becomes a bit choppy as the plot constantly shifts between the two set pieces.
Rear Window, at Hartford Stage through November 15th.