by Shirley Lorraine
English thriller on stage in Ojai
Now on stage at the Ojai Art Center Theater is The Rope, a classy psychological thriller built on a true story. It’s not a “who-dunnit.” It’s “why it was done.” The crime is explained in the first few minutes. From there, the action relies on wordplay, not too subtle hints and the gullibility of others.
The Rope, written in 1929, by Patrick Hamilton, explores sentiments based on the real-life crime of two wealthy American teens, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, who kidnapped and killed a fellow university student just for the intellectual experience. They took their lead from studying philosopher Nietzsche’s theory of Superman in which it is promoted that some people are intellectually superior to others and thus are free to live by different standards.
In fact, Leopold and Loeb were both said to be of high intellect, confident that they could successfully pull off a perfect crime. However, they were turned in by an acquaintance whose own lack of moral compass defied logic. The famous trial of Leopold and Loeb was sensational as they were defended by Clarence Darrow who ultimately spared them execution by obtaining sentences of life imprisonment.
In Hamilton’s rendering, the setting is London. Students Wyndham Brandon (Jon Markham) and Charles Granillo (Evan Roush) have just strangled a fellow student and stashed his body in a chest in their drawing room. They then hold a small party and brazenly invite the victim’s father, Sir Johnstone Kentley, (Ray Mastrovito) as well as a few others, basically to heighten their feelings of superiority over all their guests.
Ultimately, they are found out, their plan to leave crumbles heightened by drink, emotions, a raging storm and confrontation. Even though Brandon boldly announced to the guests what had been done, he was stunned to find that his ruse did not fool everybody. His partner, Granillo, is unable to keep a stiff upper lip, and falls apart as the action continues.
The interior setting is well appointed with some nicely detailed touches. The play also features a well-rounded cast of typically English characters – a butler (Len Klaif), an ingenue (Stephanie Blaze Bates) dotty older lady (Theresa Secor) and a naïve young man (William Palo), keeping the action light-hearted in many areas, to further highlight the burdens held by the hosts. Each plays their part well, adding subtle humor and an air of nonchalance throughout.
The story was retold and relocated for American audiences by Alfred Hitchcock, in a 1948 film starring James Stewart. Some of the characters’ names and identities changed, but the plot remained the same in content and conflict.
The plot is a complex one, exploring levels of morality, to whom they should apply, and attempts, through characterization, to rationalize the sheer audacity of theorizing that wealth or intellectual status makes one person better than another.
Well done, director Kimberly Demmary. A solid cast and production.
The Rope continues through October 22. Performances on Friday and Saturday begin at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m.www.OjaiACT.org has all the details.