A Play Devoured by its Staging

By Geary Danihy

LOOK, UP ON THE STAGE. IS IT A MOVIE? IS IT A PLAY? NO, IT’S REAR WINDOW!!!

Cornell Woolrich’s classic noir short story, “Rear Window,” from which Alfred Hitchcock crafted the 1954 film, has been adapted by Keith Reddin and is being staged by Hartford Stage -- and boy, is it being staged, and noir will never be the same. Forget about low-key lighting, forget about dingy back streets, forget just about everything that qualifies as noir, for this Rear Window is a 300-pound dowager dressed up in gold tinsel and decked out in the crown jewels. This neo-noir exercise in over-kill directed by Darko Tresnjak sets out to shock and awe the audience, but after 80 minutes all it induces is a bit of head-scratching.

The draw here is the play’s star, Kevin Bacon as Hal Jeffries, but he is literally overwhelmed and overpowered by the set designed by Alexander Dodge and the lighting (York Kennedy), sound (Jane Shaw) and projections (Sean Nieuwenhuis). In fact, early on in the play, as Jeffries’ apartment disappears -- yes, it’s a deft piece of staging -- to reveal an apartment building, it looks like the star is about to be devoured by a many-eyed monster. It’s not noir, it’s Transformers!

The premise for the play is a simple one: Jeffries, a crime reporter, is recovering from a broken leg and is confined to his apartment, which overlooks an apartment building. With nothing much to do, he starts observing his neighbors and soon comes to believe that one of them, a Mr. Thorwald (Robert Stanton), has killed his wife. As he drinks and smokes, Jeffries becomes obsessed with proving that foul play has occurred, calling in favors from his cop friend, Detective Boyne (John Bedford Lloyd) to get the goods on Thorwald.

Then there is Sam (McKinley Belcher III), a black man who shows up on Jeffries’ doorstep after having met the reporter in a bar. Fresh up from South Carolina, he is...well, it’s never made clear exactly what he is. He has apparently come to assist the crippled Jeffries, but there is a possibility that he is somehow connected to a story Jeffries covered about the arrest and execution of a black 14-year-old boy in South Carolina, a series of stories -- or perhaps it’s a series on police corruption -- that led to Jeffries being beaten (by whom?). Hence the broken leg.

But wait -- there’s more. Jeffries was once married to Gloria (Melinda Page Hamilton, who also plays Mrs. Thorwald), a debutante, but the marriage went south. This we learn about in a flash-back scene complete with a setting sun suggesting some island paradise. Where are we? Who knows, or much less cares.

The shock and awe of Jeffries’ apartment sinking into the ground to reveal the apartment building (which also features a revolving apartment -- yes, no stage trick has been left un-played) soon wears very thin. Add to this some projections that provide a touch of German Expressionism to the evening and film score music that punctuates moments meant to be dramatic and you have a melange that delivers the message: look how much money we have spent staging this play.

Given the staging, it’s difficult to evaluate the actual acting that occurs on stage. Bacon gives an interesting portrayal of a man possessed and pursued by multiple devils, that is when the apartment building is not towering over him. Belcher, asked to portray an ill-defined character, does the best he can to bring Sam to life, even when he is called on to become more of a psychiatrist than a servant/friend. It is Lloyd who dominates as the world-weary, slightly corrupt, slightly prejudiced cop. He seems to be the only one capable of not being overwhelmed by the play’s staging.

Nine actors are used to populate the various apartments in the building Jeffries becomes fixated on. As the plot (such as it is) unfolds, or unravels, they act out, in mime, various scenarios -- the cheating husband, the hussy, the housewife with babe in arms, construction workers renovating an apartment. Here, the reference is again filmic -- specifically Forty-Second Street -- without the songs and dancing.

Film is film and theater is theater, and though the twain often successfully draw upon each other, when there is an attempt to have the best of both worlds it only can lead to having the least. Such is the case with Hartford Stage’s Rear Window. You know you are in for a schizophrenic evening from the opening credits -- yes, opening credits, and they’re very Hitchcockian (if such an adjective exists).

The run has been sold out, based, one must assume, on the draw of the play’s star. This is a good thing, for those who will pack the house every night will learn a lesson about what doesn’t work in theater. Hopefully, Hartford Stage will also learn from this mistake and not attempt ever again to be all things to all people.

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

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