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End of their Rope: Off the Wall’s stylish thriller

Mark Neufang, Jeremy Welter, and Randall T. Anderson
Mark Neufang, Jeremy Welter, and Randall T. Anderson
Off the Wall Theatre

Rope, by Off the Wall Theatre

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Summer days are for cool drinks and sandy frolics; on summer nights, though, we like a good scary story. This summer, Off the Wall Theatre offers a sumptuous campfire tale to chill the blood and stimulate thought: Rope, a 1929 play by Patrick Hamilton, which Alfred Hitchcock later adapted into a movie. Inspired by the lurid, scandalous trial of Leopold and Loeb, two Chicago law students who decided to commit the perfect crime by cold-bloodedly murdering an innocent boy, thus proving themselves to be Nietzschean supermen, the play was much more topical back when would-be supermen were goose-stepping all over Europe. But it remains an incisive portrait of sociopathy and, as splendidly staged by Dale Gutzman, it’s a lovingly reconstructed period piece, a study in mood that takes us back to a time we can smile at, however gruesome the events. With the sensual, melancholy music of the day (an antique gramophone is practically a character), plus excellent costumes, and impeccable use of light and shadow, Rope creates a slide show of vivid stage pictures that convey a rich sense of the late 20s as, in Guzman’s words, a “strange and mysterious” time.

Hamilton was quite a celebrated novelist in his day, and though some might find the script overly wordy, it’s wonderfully phrased and constructed. It’s the opposite of a whodunit—we witness the murder in the first minute of the play, so we see everything from the murderers’ perspective. Like Leopold and Lowe, they are lovers, in a time when homosexuality was criminal; we soon see that one of them, Brandon, is the dominant instigator of the crime; the other, Granillo, instantly falls apart in the face of the inhuman crime he’s been accomplice to. Jeremy Welter delivers Brandon as a highly affected smartypants, grinning like a deranged Cheshire cat, almost orgasmically delighted at his own brilliance. He’s Mephistopheles to his passive partner, capably played by Mark Neufang in an extended series of variations on the theme “losing your shit.” By contrast, Brandon isn’t satisfied simply to have murdered; to better relish his triumph, he invites his victim's friends and family to an impromptu party, serving snacks off the antique chest that holds the corpse. Hamilton plays tension like a concert violinist, circling around our knowledge of the grisly secret at center stage. The film version of Rope is famous for seeming to be one continuous take. This wasn't just a gimmick, just as the play’s action is continuous: the suspense depends on us knowing that the corpse is still in the chest, because the murderers have not yet been alone to remove it.

As a couple of naive students, Alyssa Harold and Max Williamson are all freshness and breezy banter. Miss Harold is enormously poised and charming, while Mr. Williamson is a perfect upper-class twit: both might have just stepped out of a P.G. Wodehouse novel. Randall Anderson plays Rupert Cadell, a war-wounded, world-weary poet, as a far more damaged soul than the movie’s James Stewart (Hitchcock’s original choice, the urbane Cary Grant, would have been better for the film). Anderson portrays Cadell as gravely crippled: not only does he need a cane, his face is scarred (as Hamilton’s actually was, later in his life, by an automobile accident) and his speech is marred by a constant neurological tic. Though this can be a bit distracting, it adds weight to his impassioned condemnation of war as murder; we might recall the thousands of our own young men maimed in glorious military adventures abroad.

Of all the party guests, only Cadell has enough inner darkness to sense something is amiss in the shadowy apartment; on the faintest whiff of suspicion, he pieces together a dreadful hypothesis, and he’s on the hunt. This is interesting: Gutzman suggests that we might be wise to listen to the folks with inner demons, for against the real demons, the innocent don’t stand a chance. For all his self-professed amorality, Cadell ultimately stands up for “society” (as opposed to “morality”) and does the decent thing. Maybe he was the superior one after all.

Nowadays we have different demons, like the kind that haunt the internet and prompt little girls to stab their friends. Still, it’s rather comforting to witness the devils of another time raised, confronted, and defeated. It’s also a great pleasure to see a good old well-made play, which, in Off the Wall’s wonderfully-realized elegance, is a scary story worthy of a summer night.

Rope
by Patrick Hamilton
directed by Dale Gutzman
July 24 - 27
Off the Wall Theatre
Tickets $25
call (414) 484-8874 or go to www.offthewalltheatre.com