Rear Window at Hartford Stage

By Brooks Appelbaum

First Cornell Woolrich wrote a short story, “It Had To Be Murder.” Then Hitchcock transformed the story into his classic film, Rear Window. Now and through November 15, Hartford Stage is premiering an offering that attempts to be a film once again, although we are assured, wherever we look, that we are seeing an adaptation of the Woolrich tale. None of this would matter, of course, if the production held together as a compelling piece of theater. Instead, and despite a few mesmerizing performances, Darko Tresnjak’s direction is so overwrought, and Keith Reddin’s script is so incoherent, that the only response is a rueful sense of having been taken for a ride.

This I can tell you: in the beginning, Hal “Jeff” Jeffries (Kevin Bacon), wheelchair bound and with a cast on his leg, is confined to a small, shallow apartment, drinking and smoking continuously, and looking like a very angry, burnt-out, and washed up guy. A monumental set revelation tells us that his only interest is in watching the people who live in the apartment building opposite, whose windows are open and shades are up because of the sweltering heat. Only when the strong, handsome, unaccountably well-dressed Sam (McKinley Belcher III) walks through the door, keen on being Jeff’s caretaker, do we know, for sure, that we’re not in Kansas -- or rather, Hitchcock land -- any longer.

From there, a number of scenes echo the film’s plot (though don’t expect the Grace Kelly and Thelma Ritter roles). Jeff suspects that in one of the apartments a man has murdered his wife and is covering up the crime; and Jeff attempts, from his caged position, to catch the killer, using Sam -- in disturbing ways -- as his stand-in. Jeff’s ambiguous relationship with Sam creates the most genuinely suspenseful dynamic in the play.

However, scenes and references apparently drawn from Woolrich’s own dark later life interrupt both this story and its suspense. Another playwright might have successfully used these Woolrich-like elements to deepen and clarify Jeff’s emotional complexities. Instead, these references make little discernable sense and instead create in the viewer a feeling of dramaturgical vertigo.

Aside from Alexander Dodge’s set, which is initially fun in its sheer outrageousness, but ultimately distracting, the pleasure of this lurid, humorless Rear Window lies in the performances. Kevin Bacon uses his charisma to create a tightly wound and frighteningly obsessed Jeff, and McKinley Belcher III, as Sam, complements Bacon beautifully as the only warm and vulnerable character we can really care about.

John Bedford Lloyd’s smarmy, hard-boiled policeman, Boyne, brings a welcome jolt of energy to the stage. Robert Stanton and Melinda Page Hamilton are both convincing as Mr. and Mrs. Thorwald, with Hamilton also playing a character named Gloria in one of the play’s more surreal and incongruous scenes. (The program hints that the relationship between Gloria and Jeff echoes that of Woolrich and his ex-wife, but shouldn’t we understand the play on its own terms, without the benefit of program notes?) In addition to these main characters, the apartment-dwellers, all of them skillful, tell their own sharply delineated tales.

The designers have created the cinematic world, misguided though it is, of Tresnjak’s imagination. York Kennedy (Lighting); Linda Cho (Costumes); Jane Shaw (Sound); and Sean Nieuwenhuis, whose projections create the opening credits, all contribute to the strange sense that we’ve wandered into a movie theater, hidden inside Hartford Stage.

As I left Rear Window, I could only wonder whether I’d just witnessed Jeff’s eighty-five minute inflamed, or insane, nightmare, or whether I was meant to suspend my disbelief beyond reasonable boundaries and consider what I had seen as (mostly) a sequence of actual events. Because of Reddin’s script and Tresnjak’s directing, I will never know.

Rear Window runs through Nov. 15. For more information go to www.hartfordstage.org.

 

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