STRANGERS ON A TRAIN
Fans of Hitchcock, (as I semi am,) will be interested to see his famous 1951 film, Strangers on a Train, as a play. I could not even envision how the not-too-big Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills would present it, but it all worked-out. I knew it would be a gargantuan undertaking for them, for which I offer my applause.
But the dark stage lighting is so egregious that it overrode everything else about the production for me. I seriously couldn’t even concentrate on the show because the lighting of it is so awful and misguided. I wanted the first scene (on the train) to be over already because I erroneously assumed that the stage lights would finally come up to an acceptable level, and I would then be able to really see the actors. But the lights never changed more than a little. It was the talk of the ladies room at intermission. I even kept checking to see if I was wearing sunglasses! [Note: My eyesight was just checked and is totally normal. But I feel like I need a return trip to the eye doctor now after that immense strain on them!!!]
The “lighting,” (which should be referred to as “darking” in this case,) is waaaay too dark for the stage. (I don’t know to whom the fault belongs—the lighting designer, director, or producer–so I’m not naming them.) I feel that perhaps they were going for noir lighting, but this is just too noir; it’s not a film–we want to be able to see the action!
The other glaring negative is that, at almost three hours long, it is way too wordy. At least a half hour of it can be easily cut, especially the mother’s rambling and inexplicable monologue in the first act. Actually, all of Act I is way too long and repetitive. We get it—the man is a lunatic. Enough already! (To compare, the film version is only an hour and forty minutes.)
With so many scenes in the show, I appreciate that they were going for diversified blocking throughout the staging, to keep it more interesting. But there’s a scene in Act II, where a detective sort-of grills the couple in their living room, that doesn’t really work. That’s because each side of the audience sees only the backs of heads, rather than all three faces, in such an important scene.
So now that those few weaknesses of the production are out of the way, let’s get to the positives, shall we?
The casting is excellent. I believed that every single one of the actors was their character. They’re all spot-on for their roles, especially Michael Mullen as the psychopathic “stranger” on the train. I got a kick out of that he sort-of turned into Trump from time to time, which is perfect for an evil character!
Michael also did the ’50s costumes for the show, which my friend, Jeanine, loved, especially the dresses on the wife of the other “stranger.”
The production denoted the many locations very well, aided greatly by a somewhat wider set than usual for them, and interesting rear wall projections. The images let us know things like when the men were on the train or outside chatting elsewhere. And the sounds, such as the noise of the train, and the auxiliary suspenseful music that we would hear in a mystery film, add sooo much to the experience.
I always appreciate the eclectic productions that Theatre 40 brings to us. But I feel that Strangers on a Train is a tad too ambitious because of the many locations and not being able to show the cinematic horrors that the movie does. The several Agatha Christie plays that they’ve presented have worked better than this complicated Hitchcock tale. So perhaps they should stay away from the master, unless they do the movie Rope, which takes place in only one location and in one night. And it’s only eighty minutes long!
Still, the topic of Hitchcock films is interesting. And by the way, this theatre didn’t commission the play nor have one of their members write it. It was written and produced in England a decade ago, by a team of theatre heavy-hitters. And it’s based more on the novel than on the film, (which is also based on the book. ) I did some research on the whole topic, and it turns out that the book, the movie, and this play vary from each other quite a bit. So, if you’re a big fan of the narrative, and want to compare the mediums, it’s a good idea to check-out all three, this one while Theatre 40 is giving you the opportunity.
I recognize the merit of the attempt to present this play to LA audiences, and even though I feel that it really doesn’t really pay off enough, I still deem Theatre 40 to be the easiest theater experience in town. So I will forgive them the few times that a show doesn’t work for me, which has been less than a handful of times in the almost-decade that I’ve been a patron there! (By the way, it’s been freezing in there of late, so make sure to dress in layers.)
And here’s a bit of great news for their fellow actors: Theatre 40 offers half-price tickets to members of SAG and all the performing arts unions! You just go the box office on the day of the performance you want to see, and if it’s not sold-out, you’re in with the discount! How kind of them. So these are strangers worth knowing!
Strangers on a Train running through February 18, 2024
Theatre 40 241 S. Moreno Drive Beverly Hills