Dead Giveaway | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Dead Giveaway 


Bailiwick Repertory


Trap Door Theatre

By Albert Williams

Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman--a rope over an abyss.--Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

In the stark confines of a jail cell and the plush comfort of a London sitting room, would-be supermen play fateful, fatal games of psychosexual power. The amoral hero-villains of Patrick Hamilton's Rope and Jean Genet's Deathwatch commit murder, an act that in their misguided neo-Nietzschean fantasies makes one "a real man"--strong and independent, freed from social constraints by his control over life and death. But their savage crimes destroy rather than ennoble them, shaking them off their emotional tightwire and into a moral abyss. On the surface these flawed but influential plays can seem dated genre pieces: Rope is an elegantly stilted drawing-room thriller, Deathwatch a prison drama replete with convict slang. But their revival by two off-Loop theaters reveals both plays to be potentially fascinating studies of weaklings seduced by the will to power, pursuing an unattainable perfection of evil and finding themselves broken and alone in "a very queer and dark and incomprehensible universe," as a character in Rope puts it.

I say "potentially fascinating" because the scripts' drawbacks--Rope's creaky plotting, Deathwatch's uncertain mixture of naturalism and expressionism--challenge contemporary actors and directors to give life to conflicts neither the characters nor the playwrights openly express. Underneath the lurid actions and sometimes half-baked philosophizing, the real drama in each play is the struggle by two men for dominance over each other and over a third man who shares their claustrophobically close space. The success with which Trap Door Theatre meets this challenge is what makes its Deathwatch admirable and often riveting, but Bailiwick Repertory's slack Rope is a disappointment.

First produced in 1929, Rope marked the playwriting debut of English novelist Patrick Hamilton. In The Light That Failed, Hamilton's biographer and brother Bruce Hamilton notes that the play was inspired by the 1924 Leopold-Loeb case (though Bailiwick Repertory's publicity asserts that it was based on a British murder); certainly the central characters recall the University of Chicago students whose "thrill killing" of a Hyde Park neighbor boy shocked the nation (and inspired the films Compulsion and Swoon). In Rope, best known these days in its Americanized Alfred Hitchcock movie version, Oxford University classmates Wyndham Brandon and Charles Granillo lure a 20-year-old chum, Ronald Kentley, to their London townhouse one night. There they strangle him, lock his body in a huge trunk, then host a party using the trunk as a buffet table; for an extra sadistic frisson, the party's guest of honor is the victim's father.

The murderers' motive is to revel in pure "adventure and danger"--and to prove that, by committing the perfect crime, they are superior beings, invulnerable to detection and unfettered by quaint notions of morality. Their perversity has been unwittingly nurtured by their mentor, a brilliant but bitter poet named Rupert Cadell, whom they also invite to the dinner party. Lame from a wound suffered during World War I, the waspish Rupert embodies the disillusion of a generation whose young men were slaughtered in "the war to end all wars" (his name recalls Rupert Brooke, the beloved soldier-poet whose death came to symbolize the war's waste). Rupert preaches that murder is merely a matter of degree in a society that calls the killing of one person criminal but the killing of thousands heroic; Brandon's secret is that he's put into practice what Rupert dares only to preach.

As the party progresses, Rupert begins to suspect that some harm has befallen Ronald and that his hosts are responsible; Charles's increasing drunkenness also generates suspense--or rather it's meant to but doesn't here. Rope's plot is filled with contrivances, such as Rupert picking a telltale music-hall ticket out of Charles's waistcoat pocket without Charles knowing. But these clunkers wouldn't matter if the underlying drama were given its due. The crux of the play is Brandon's attempt to control Charles--not only to keep him from spilling the beans but out of a deep-seated need to dominate him. Planning the murder and having Charles carry it out is Brandon's way of binding Charles to him, but Charles's guilty conscience threatens to expose the deed. Heightening the tension is Brandon's relationship with Rupert: by committing the "perfect crime," Brandon seeks to surpass the teacher whose approval he covets. He also unconsciously invites Rupert's suspicions, the better to set up a game of wits and wills: once Rupert's moral sense is reawakened by the cruelty of Ronald's murder, he seeks to trick the killers into revealing their crime.

In Bailiwick's revival, director David Zak portrays an overt sexual relationship between Brandon and Charles, taking a firm position on a long-standing matter of debate. Arthur Laurents, who scripted the Hitchcock movie version, has said it's "apparent" the men are gay, but Hamilton's brother-biographer suggests otherwise: praising Brian Aherne's manly interpretation of Brandon, he writes that "with a weaker Brandon Rope is, rather curiously, apt to seem like a play about homosexuals." In Bailiwick's Rope Brandon and Charles signal their romantic attachment through casual, undisguised physical affection in front of their friends--including a tedious heterosexual couple, whose coy flirtation provides supposed comic relief in the first act, and Rupert, whose closeness to the youths may or may not reflect his own homosexuality. But making Charles and Brandon openly gay undercuts the dramatic tension their relationship would have if it were closeted; in any case, Zak's handsome but dull actors--Ian Novak as Brandon and Wellesley Chapman as Charles--strike no erotic sparks together. Nor do they suggest the deeper struggle going on between them, as John Dall and Farley Granger so brilliantly do in the less "liberated" but far more suspenseful Hitchcock film.

There are many other problems as well. Robert Bailey's Rupert comes off as a meddlesome whiner rather than a melancholy figure whose fine nature asserts itself in a crisis. The English accents are mediocre, making the dialogue sound artificial and precious. The in-the-round staging makes it hard for the audience to watch what the response is in one spot to an action in another. Ronald's murder, which should set a tone of kinky horror, is rushed, crude, noisy, and almost impossible to see in the near total darkness of the opening scene (Kevin Heckman's lighting design, with its reliance on offstage light, is unencumbered by anything so mundane as a fire-exit sign). Mark Liberty's set, a faded-genteel sitting room in fashionable Mayfair, is more faded than genteel--it's hard to believe a control freak like Brandon could live with this beat-up furniture and shabby rug. But the fundamental problem is the acting of the two leads, all superficial signaling and smirking without any underlying emotional intensity.

Deathwatch, like Rope, was its author's first play, an imperfect transition from the printed page to the living stage. (Even so, this play and its successor, The Maids, won Genet the 1947 Prix de la Pleiades, selected by a jury that included Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Andre Malraux; whether by design or coincidence, Trap Door's production marks the 50th anniversary of its first public reading, in January 1947.) Genet himself came to recognize its problems, going so far as to write in 1967 that he never wanted the play produced again. Luckily, he didn't get his wish.

Drawn from its author's own frequent stints in jail for theft and other crimes (only a petition from such notables as Andre Gide, Jean Cocteau, and Sartre kept the recidivist Genet from being sentenced to life in prison), Deathwatch concerns two petty criminals, Lefranc and Maurice, who share a tiny cell with a rapist-murderer named Green Eyes. The extremity of Green Eyes's crime and his impending execution make him a hero to his cellmates. The cocky, macho Lefranc's admiration is colored by rivalry--he hopes to succeed Green Eyes as boss of the cell block and has wooed Green Eyes's girlfriend while pretending to write letters to her on the illiterate killer's behalf. The bitchy young Maurice's hero-worship is tinged with lust, though he tries to hide his homosexuality by feigning a crush on the female figure Green Eyes has tattooed on his chest (it's the chest that attracts Maurice, not the tattoo).

The rivalry between Lefranc and Maurice finally explodes in a vicious fight in which Lefranc kills Maurice, partly in angry impulsiveness and partly to prove to Green Eyes that he's the worthier man. But Green Eyes, like Rope's Rupert, is repulsed rather than impressed--after all, his crime was no triumph of will but "a gift from God or the devil" that he'd just as soon not have received. Lefranc is left stunned by the enormity of his aloneness and the frailty of his humanity.

Genet's uneven mixture of darkly poetic lyricism and hard-edged naturalism has troubled most directors, including Genet himself, over the years. Some productions (including the Method-influenced 1958 U.S. premiere, starring George Maharis and Vic Morrow) have erred on the side of realism, making the poetic sections sound hollow; other stagings have used masks and multimedia to emphasize the play's dreamlike quality. Trap Door director-visual designer Andrew Cooper Wasser and his young cast find an intriguing and effective balance, turning realistic mannerisms of movement and speech into stylized gestural rituals. Steve Meyer's shackled Green Eyes suggests an ape in a zoo, loping gorillalike as far as his ankle chains will allow or rolling his weight back and forth as he stares down his cell mates; his thick-tongued, snorting mumble makes even his most poetic dialogue sound like the words of an uneducated thug. Mark Makers's vain, preening Lefranc slicks back his long hair, tugs at his crotch, and carefully rolls his short sleeves up over his shoulder muscles as he flashes the grotesque leer that in his mind passes for a disarming smile. And Michael C. Estanich's wiry Maurice is like a puppet wishing he could be a real boy, sticking out his chest in stiff-backed, artificial defiance or jerking around the cell like a Petrushka with his strings cut.

Wasser's blocking illuminates the play's triangular relationship: he generally places Green Eyes upstage of and between the other two in a way that strangely calls to mind Jesus' crucifixion between two thieves. Sometimes Wasser breaks the triangle, to intense effect, by having two actors lunge at each other with a fierce, erotically charged intimacy (though nothing here approaches the explicit sexuality of later Genet works, such as his 1950 film Un chant d'amour). The actors' undisguised youthfulness works for rather than against them--these are no hardened cons but kids in over their heads, which makes the outcome even more disturbing. Their air of innocence is reinforced by the almost pristine visual scheme. Though Genet called for a realistic cell with stone walls, barred door, and granite bed, Wasser gives us a strangely clean, abstract white rectangle decorated only by a single metal cot and a toilet; the men wear starchy white uniforms, not the violently clashing striped jobs Genet envisioned.

The production's only false note comes even before the play begins--in an embarrassingly hokey bit, audience members are bullied by club-wielding "guards" as they enter the auditorium. This trivializes the authenticity of Genet's experience and compromises the considerable force exerted by the rest of the show.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Deathwatch photo by Vesna Carbovic/ Rope photo.

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