Warning to Alfred Hitchcock fans: Do not expect to see his thriller “Strangers on a Train” recreated in the current South Bend Civic Theatre production of the play by the same name.
Craig Warner’s theatrical version is closer to Patricia Highsmith’s 1950 novel but the suspenseful twists and turns of the 1951 film have been replaced by endless monologues by the psychotic killer which, to quote another play, “do not so much rouse as stupefy,” and by plot machinations that are ridiculous to say the least and definitely unbelievable. One can only suspend disbelief for so long.
The “action” in Warner’s drama begins, as does the film, when two strangers meet on a train (ergo the title). Charles Bruno (Rob Buck) strikes up a mostly one-sided conversation with architect Guy Haines (Richard Isaacson). Guy reads his book (Plato) while Bruno pontificates about white (good) horses and black (evil) horses and the grey in-betweens which make up most of the population. It is his theory that everyone has a god and a murderer inside him and that, give proper motivation, anyone will commit a criminal act.
It is this motivation he proceeds to propose to Haines. As each has a person in his life he wishes to be rid of, they will swap murders. Since they are strangers, there will be no connection. Haines takes Bruno’s proposal as a morbid joke and laughingly agrees. The joke turns deadly when Haines’ wife is killed. From that point on, Bruno evidently abandons his theory of safety as strangers.
In several less-than-believable scenes, he appears as an uninvited guest at the architect’s wedding to Anne Faulkner (Heather Marks), later manipulating an invitation to spend the night in the couple’s home when Haines is out of town, later encouraging the young architect to build the couple’s dream home plus one for him just down the street and finally threatening to tell all if Haines does not fulfill his part of the “bargain.” When Haines finally is driven to comply — the most unbelievable act of all — his life becomes a nightmare.
Enter Arthur Gerard (Tucker Curtis), a private investigator hired by Bruno’s father (Guy’s target) who has been rehired by his doting mother, Elsie Bruno (Andrea Smiddy), to catch her husband’s killer. A most unbelievable plot twist occurs when, in true Colombo fashion, Gerard discovers the truth. The plot then reaches a really ludicrous climax in “the old railroad yard” (there’s that train again!). The finale is completely ridiculous.
The urge to laugh, however, had little to do with the performances which, for the most part, were more than adequate, with special notice to Isaacson, Smiddy and Curtis. Buck is assigned the thankless task of delivering Warner’s psychological diatribes. I can only suspect that the book also hinted at the uncomfortable, too-close relationship between adult Bruno and his mother and the obsessive turn by Bruno as he stalks Haines, but it cannot make the eventual fates of each of the characters any less contrived.
Completing the cast are Jason Gresl as Frank Myers, one of Haines’ fellow architects, and Jeff Starkey as Robert Treacher, a long-time friend who urges him to follow his dream of building “a white bridge with a span like an angel’s wings.”
The multi-level set designates many locations, all well defined. The cold color scheme is in keeping with the general tone of the script. Veteran director Craig McNab keeps the pace up as much as possible but it’s difficult to make a super flyer out of a steam engine.
“STRANGERS ON A TRAIN” plays at 7:30 p.m. today and Nov. 9; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and Nov. 11-12; and 3 p.m. Sunday and Nov. 13 in the Wilson Mainstage Auditorium of the theater at 403 N. Main Street, South Bend. For reservations and information, call 234-1112 or visit www.sbct.org.