Window Watcher

Review of Rear Window at Hartford Stage

Darko Tresnjak’s production of Rear Window, adapted by Keith Reddin from the Cornell Woolrich story, “It Had to Be Murder,” that inspired the famous Hitchcock film, creates, on the one hand, a visually interesting “stage noir” take on the story, and, on the other, adds levels of complication that make for a confused approach to characters and content.

Some of the problem, of course, may be in the eye of the beholder. If you come to the show informed by the film, you may be expecting the play’s big-draw film star, Kevin Bacon, to be playing Jeffries as a take on the affable Everyman made so indelible by James Stewart. The Jeffries in Reddin’s script, based a bit on Woolrich himself, is deliberately not that. Jeffries is an alcoholic newsman brooding over at least two major issues: one is the loss of his wife, Gloria, in a vague backstory, the other is a certain disillusion caused by the conviction and execution of an innocent black youth in South Carolina, a story he covered. Typically, Jeffries likes to write about homicide, and to purloin the murder weapon when possible, but the racist handling of the case of George Stinney (which actually occurred) has given him pause, professionally speaking.

 McKinley Belcher III (Sam), Kevin Bacon (Hal Jeffries)

McKinley Belcher III (Sam), Kevin Bacon (Hal Jeffries)

He’s also on pause because, like the main character in both story and film, he has a cast on his leg, and crutches, and a wheelchair. All of which gives Bacon something to do, physically, in moving about the stage and making the most of a world-weary, hang-dog manner. But if you’re hoping for a good, middle-aged female nurse role such as Stella, brought to life by Thelma Ritter in Hitchcock’s film (scripted by John Michael Hayes), forget it. The helper for Jeffries is a young black kid, Sam (McKinley Belcher III) who shows up saying Jeffries, one drunken night, invited him over. He also has nothing but wide-eyed praise for Jeffries the writer; Jeffries looks askance at the flattery but takes a liking to the kid anyway. All well and good, except that Sam, a cipher of a character, also has to take on the role of getting Jeffries evidence—in the film, that task is left to his swanky girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) and in the story to Sam, a servant of long-standing. Here, the strongest character reading of these two is as a folie à deux between newsman turned sleuth and adoring fan turned factotum; there are also a few hints of Jeffries being in the closet, but those aren’t developed any more than that wan recollection of a former wife.

 Kevin Bacon as Hal Jeffries

Kevin Bacon as Hal Jeffries

And the lack of development on the level of Jeffries’ emotional life nags at the play and isn’t really compensated for by Jeffries’ activity. What Jeffries does, of course, is spy on his neighbors. Though they aren’t up to much other than offering window-dressing, there is an ensemble up there in a tenement-like set, complete with fire escape, able to turn when necessary to let us into the modest apartment of the Thorwalds (Robert Stanton and Melinda Page Hamilton), a couple at loggerheads that Jeffries becomes obsessed with. There’s a glimpse of where this might have gone, were we still living in the Freudian days that fueled elements in film noir and Hitchcock, when we see that the couple might be living out some version of Jeffries’ own marital woe (particularly as Hamilton plays both the former Mrs. Jeffries and the current Mrs. Thorwald, that is, until the latter disappears mysteriously). The psychological battle Jeffries might undergo in confronting why he believes Thorwald—a meek-enough-looking guy, seeming like the quintessential hen-pecked husband complete with effeminate apron when we first meet him—killed Mrs. Thorwald could be the lurid stuff of a melodrama of the 1950s or 1960s (cue Nicholas Ray).

But that’s not what we have here, seemingly. Or that’s at least—without giving it away—what we’re led to believe by the rather rushed and unconvincing denouement that comes about, complete with loud gunplay, before the fuzzy conclusion. Along the way, there’s John Bedford Lloyd as Boyne, a surly detective that Jeffries himself calls into action, as he does in the story, though in Woolrich sans the racism that seems present here to remind us that cops, in New York (not just down South), have been known to mistreat African-Americans. It’s a point that serves little purpose in this story of a house-bound, would-be sleuth going bonkers, but one must allow that it’s a point, at least. Nothing much else here has one.

Except, that is, for the manifest technical point that seems to be exercising director Tresnjak: can the stage take on the mood and feel of film noir and deliver similar entertainment? In terms of the use of Alexander Dodge’s amazing set, with York Kennedy’s rich lighting scheme, Jane Shaw’s powerhouse sound, and Sean Nieuwenhuis’ projections—including opening titles straight from a movie matinee and a pair of filmed eyes that Hitch, always a friend to kitschy effects, might use—Tresnjak creates a world that should be inhabited by characters from James M. Cain and the like, where murder will out and flawed heroes take their lumps. But this is no campy celebration of beloved effects of a bygone cinematic era. And as a dark night of the soul, the play is oddly soul-less, while the theme of murder, so dear to the noirish heart, is here a vague sub-plot among sub-plots, made all the more will-o’-the-wisp by the fact that the tenement set, as the Thorwalds’ container, leaps into view only when, as it were, Jeffries bothers “to turn on the set.”

 Kevin Bacon (Jeffries), Robert Stanton and Melinda Page Hamilton (the Thorwalds)

Kevin Bacon (Jeffries), Robert Stanton and Melinda Page Hamilton (the Thorwalds)

And that might be the final irony of the staging of Rear Window. The film made the case that we all live, to some degree, in glass houses, created by our voyeuristic love of cinema and television. We look at one another as characters in a drama we’re trying to watch. The richly detailed set in the film recalled a stage set, but “off-stage” and “off-camera” are two different worlds, the one simply doesn’t exist, the other appeals to a range of imaginative possibilities. Staging the cinematic is a complicated business and Tresnjak’s Rear Window demonstrates the problems more than it solves them.

 

Rear Window
Adapted for the stage by Keith Reddin
Based on the story by Cornell Woolrich

Scenic Design: Alexander Dodge; Costume Design: Linda Cho; Lighting Design: York Kennedy; Sound Design: Jane Shaw; Projection Design: Sean Nieuwenhuis; Wig & Hair Design: Charles G. LaPointe; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Fight Choreographer: Steve Rankin; Casting: Jim Carnahan, C.S.A.; Production Stage Manager: James Harker; Assistant Stage Manager: Cherie B. Tay; Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombe; Associate Artistic Director: Elizabeth Williamson

Cast: Kevin Bacon; McKinley Belcher III; Melinda Page Hamilton; John Bedford Lloyd; Robert Stanton; Erik Bloomquist; Caitlin Harrity; Dan Bender; Roy Donnelly; William Squier; Barbara Gallow; Ashley Croce; Jon Garrity; Quinn Warren; Dan Bender; Roy Donnelly

Hartford Stage
October 22-November 15, 2015