I’ll “X” your ex, if you pop my pop.
Patricia Highsmith created the now-common and devious story trope of the ‘murder swap’ for her first chilling novel, Strangers on a Train. Published in 1950, the psychological thriller charts how the lives of two men become inextricably enmeshed after a random meeting on a train. Or is it random…?
Highsmith’s debut novel was made into a movie by Alfred Hitchcock the following year (1951), using a screenplay by Raymond Chandler (that he disavowed) and by other writers including Czenzi Ormonde, who collaborated with Hitchcock’s associate producer Barbara Keon and Alma Reville, Hitchcock’s wife, to get the script finalized within three weeks.
The iconic tale was adapted for radio in 2004 by Craig Warner, and he also adapted it for the stage, making its premier in London’s West End in 2013. Warner’s play is a more faithful adaptation of the novel than the film, thanks to its darker tone, far murkier morality, and a greater emphasis on the psychological features of the story. The play also resolves with a different ending than both the novel and the film.
The current production of Strangers on a Train at Theater Forty is directed by Jules Aaron and runs through February 18, 2024, at the Mary Levin Cutler Theatre in Beverly Hills.
Unfortunately, this staging suffers from excruciatingly sluggish pacing and uneven performances. There’s no need for this play to have an over two-and-a-half hours duration, ultimately diluting the suspense.
Architect Guy Haines (played by Joe Clabby) has a seemingly random encounter with a stranger, Charles Bruno (Michael Mullen), on a train. The two men converse and commiserate over their personal issues, whereupon Bruno suggests an idea for the perfect murder: each man will kill the inconvenient person in the other man’s life. Since the men are complete strangers, Bruno theorizes that no one will suspect either of them for the seemingly unrelated crimes. Could Bruno have invented a foolproof plan?
Guy does not take the wild scheme seriously, and when the two men go their separate ways he feels confident that he will never hear from crackpot Bruno again. Bruno, however, is convinced that the men had a firm agreement and proceeds to kill Haines’ trouble-making wife. To Guy’s dismay, the man now expects Haines to uphold his end of their “bargain” and kill Bruno’s father.
The play is divided into two acts, with the first act focusing on the build-up of the murder pact and the second act on the aftermath and consequences. Additionally, all three versions of the story imply that Bruno had a prior interest in Guy and orchestrated their encounter. Therefore, the meeting in Strangers on a Train is not a coincidence, but a calculated move by Bruno to target and entrap Guy in his twisted scheme.
There are some interesting differences between all three incarnations of Highsmith’s intriguing drama. While the novel reads as a dark psychological thriller that explores the themes of guilt, obsession, and homoeroticism, in the hands of Hitchcock the story becomes more of a suspenseful film noir that focuses on the cat-and-mouse game between Bruno and the hapless Guy. Warner’s play is almost a hybrid of the two versions, beefing up the Freudian analysis while sticking closer to the original novel than Hitchcock.
Additionally, the novel portrays Guy as a weak and conflicted character who succumbs to Bruno’s pressure while the film presents Guy as more sympathetic and innocent. The play restores Guy’s complexity and ambiguity, as he struggles with his guilt over his wife’s death. Bruno is more or less consistent across the adaptations, as a charming but psychotic villain who – fatally – becomes obsessed with Guy.
Michael Mullen is great as Bruno, the spoiled and privileged son who resents his father and dotes upon his mother Elsie (nicely played by Sharron Shayne). The devious scheme largely fails because of Bruno’s dysfunction. He keeps messing up the perfect murder plot by inserting himself into Guy’s life. It’s fun to watch Mullen falling apart as the stresses of the complicated conspiracy prey on his psyche.
Anica Petrovic gives a wonderful performance as Guy’s loyal fiancé (later wife), although she isn’t given much to do besides convey undying and blind devotion while sporting a seemingly endless parade of chic 50s patterned frocks. Special mention to Michael Mullen for fantastic costume design.
The sound design by Nick Foran features haunting musical themes reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann’s compositions for various Hitchcock films such as Vertigo.
With its sinister premise and dark, twisted exploration of human nature, Strangers on a Train presents a gripping and suspenseful story, with a pair of complex and fascinating characters at its center. Warner’s stage adaptation will likely be enjoyed by fans of the novel, the film, or anyone who enjoys psychological thrillers.
Strangers on a Train.
Stage play written by Craig Warner. Based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith. Directed by Jules Aaron. Produced by David Hunt Stafford for Theatre Forty.
Theatre Forty is located at 241 S, Moreno Drive, in the Mary Levin Cutler Theatre (same venue, new name), Beverly Hills, CA 90212. The venue is on the campus of Beverly Hills High School. Free parking is available in the parking lot beneath the theatre. To access parking, enter through the driveway at the intersection of Durant and Moreno Drives.
Performances: Show runs through February 18, 2024.
Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. Sundays at 2:00 p.m.
7:30 PM Shows – January: 18, 19, 20, 25, also February: 1, 2, 3, 8, 9, 10, 15, 16, 17
Please note, performances on 1/26 & 1/27 have been cancelled due to illness.
2:00 PM Shows – January: 21, also February: 4, 11, 18
Please note, performances on 1/28 have been cancelled due to illness.
$35.00 per ticket
*Plus a $3 processing fee per ticket.
RESERVATIONS: (310) 364-0535.
ONLINE TICKETING: http://theatre40.org