Monday, November 2, 2015

Review: Rear Window with Kevin Bacon -- Hartford Stage

Kevin Bacon, Robert Stanton and Melinda Page Hamilton. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Wow, What  a Set! But Rear Window Adaptation Fails to Pull Back the Curtain on Suspense
By Lauren Yarger
If you’re expecting the characters that Grace Kelly, Jimmy Stewart and Thelma Ritter made famous in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film – or just a sharply written, suspenseful plot -- you’ll be disappointed in Keith Reddin’s adaptation of Rear Window playing at Hartford Stage.

This play, based on a short story also titled “It Had to Be Murder” by Cornell Woolrich which inspired the film, is dark, weak and at times even corny, but has sold out here because it includes star Kevin Bacon as the wheel-chair bound man who thinks he sees a neighbor murder his wife.

Where the film contains compelling characters who have interesting relationships with each other, this stage adaptation is more about trying to find a window into the souls of  Hal Jeffries (Bacon) and Sam (McKinley Belcher III), a young, black man who has shown up to take care of “Jeff” after meeting him in a bar.

Jeffries had been one of the best crime reporters around before he became house-bound in his New York City apartment. Now, when he isn’t hobbling around on a broken leg received in some mysterious way, he sits around drinking and looking out of his rear window observing the lives of his neighbors who are visible in their apartments across the way. Among them are a young, scantily clad woman, a troubled couple and workmen in a vacant apartment (portrayed by the ensemble: Dan Bender, Erik Bloomquist, Ashley Croce, Roy Donnelly, Barbara Gallow, Jon Garrity, Caitlin Harrity, William Squier, Quinn Warren).

When Jeff looks out the window, the walls of his apartment melt away and the going-ons in the other apartments come to life in individual panes thanks to Alexander Dodge’s phenomenal set design, expertly lighted by York Kennedy. The disappearing, reappearing and rotating abilities of the towering set really are jaw dropping and make it the most exciting part of the show (and one of the most amazing we have seen on a Connecticut stage).

Catching Jeff’s attention in particular, is Mrs. Thorwald (Melinda Page Hamilton), a sad wife, obviously disenchanted with her husband (Robert Stanton) and his unwanted advances. When Jeff picks up on some unusual circumstances and suspects that Thorwald has murdered his wife, he calls friend and police detective Boyne (John Bedford Lloyd) to investigate to no avail. If anything, Jeffries has angered the possible murderer and alerted him to what he might have seen.

Jeffries seems to slide deeper into his alcoholic stupor, imagining conversations with his neighbors and seemingly uncaring about putting Sam in harm’s way when he asks him to help investigate. The police aren’t exactly welcoming of African Americans in 1947, you see (when they play is set and evidenced by Linda Cho’s period costumes). There’s additional subtext to the story as well, that Jeffries is taking advantage of Sam, with whom he might have a closeted sexual relationship – also not popular in 1947.

Though we expect a psychological thriller, thanks in part to an excellent opening scene staged by Director Darko Tresnjak, where, sans the usual curtain speech, suspenseful music (sound designed by the excellent Jane Shaw) draws us toward the stage where projections (designed by Sean Nieuwenhuis) fade to scary, blood red. Instead the plot veers off to become a look into the window of Jeff’s soul – accomplished in part through flashbacks where we see him in relationship with his former wife, socialite Gloria (also played by Hamilton) --  and into Sam’s struggle against prejudice and injustice.

The mystery here focuses on whether or not Jeffries has imagined the whole murder in an alcoholic hallucination and on the relationship between him and Sam. The suspense of whether Thorwald killed his wife and got rid of the body – and whether he will eliminate Jeffries for witnessing that act – are sort of lost, especially with pre-confrontation dialogue between the two in Jeff’s imagination. No amount of the pounding suspenseful music convinces us otherwise.

One scene where Mrs. Thorwald calls to Jeffries from the grave is comical rather than suspenseful. After a while, we even draw a curtain on the awe of those fabulous sets as the constant movement – in one case to allow for a scene just a few line of dialogue long – becomes distracting in the 85-minute, no intermission staging.

Rear Window runs through Nov.15 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford. This run is sold out with a limited number of standing room and last-minute seats available. Performances are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday evenings at 7:30 pm.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm; Saturdays and Sundays at 2 pm. Tickets $25-$95.  (860) 527-5151;

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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