SOLVANG, Calif. — Here in the land of butter cookies, kringle and the PCPA Theaterfest, a play that's really a screenplay based on another play made its world premiere over the weekend.
It is billed as "Alfred Hitchcock's Rope," which it is, and isn't. Allow me to explain.
Pat Hitchcock O'Connell, daughter of the director whose silhouette and movies are legendary, is a longtime supporter of the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts and its Solvang Theaterfest. Jack Shouse, artistic director emeritus, approached O'Connell with an idea: Why not stage the screenplay of Hitchcock's 1948 film, "Rope"?
Skeptics may answer that question with a "yes, but why?" In fact the results aren't bad. In play form, screenwriter Arthur Laurents' "Rope"--which is what we have here, not Hitchcock's--amounts to a fairly absorbing, nicely staged exercise. If it's not riveting, well, neither was the movie.
In a directorial career devoted to novel technical challenges, "Rope" rates as Hitchcock's oddest. It is a filmed play, in effect, confined to a Manhattan penthouse apartment, the claustrophobic action photographed in 10-minute takes strung together to look like a continuous shot.
So now the filmed play has become a played film. On stage in Solvang, cool, cat-like Brandon (Tim Casto) has enlisted his nervous whelp of a lover, Phillip (Jeremy Mann), in the killing of their fellow Harvard schoolmate, David (John Patrick, strangled almost before you get in your seat). David's body lies in the living room chest.
Then they host a dinner party, whose guests include the dead man's father (Bob Peterson), the dead man's girlfriend (Melinda Ann Parrett), and--crucially, for thrill's sake--Rupert (Alan Brooks), the boys' prep school housemaster.
The screenplay's gay innuendo and drawing-room Nietzsche is its only real claim to distinction. On the DVD edition of "Rope," Laurents, with typical humility, says he never cared for Hitchcock's technical notions.
It's Laurents' own groundbreaking treatment of homosexuality--veiled, but not invisible--that distinguishes Hitch-cock's movie, according to Laurents. In passing he refers to the 1929 Patrick Hamilton play "Rope's End" (also known as "Rope," without the "End"), from which Laurents got more than he cares to admit. The outdoor Solvang production of "Rope," which later moves to PCPA's indoor Santa Maria theater, is dominated by a couple of overripe turns in the leads. Casto oozes gallons of smugly unctuous sleaze as Brandon. Mann's jumpy, obvious Phillip goes into high panic mode early, and often.
Subtler, and better, is Brooks' Rupert. With his dour countenance, the actor looks like a good bet for a Scotland Yard bumbler--not what Laurents' role calls for.
Yet the actor's solidity ends up working in his favor. He lends some ballast to this calculatedly charming wiseacre. Another standout in a generally solid cast: Melinda Ann Parrett, very late '40s in style and delivery in the drab role of Janet.
Director Shouse and his designers attempt to recreate, in theatrical terms, what Hitchcock wanted on screen. Lighting designer Angeline Lee Summers goes whole-hog with color washes to indicate fear or panic. Such effects underscore the enterprise's odd twilight world between two mediums.
Does it work as a play? Fitfully well. Certainly Laurents' "Rope," or Hitchcock's, has transferred easily from screen to stage. But without the 10-minute takes, without the novelty quality, all you're left with is Laurents' banter, which sounds like middling late '40s radio serial material, nothing less or more.
At least it's something new. New being relative.
"Rope," Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts (PCPA) Theaterfest, Festival Theatre, 420 2nd St., Solvang. Wednesdays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Ends Sept. 9. Beginning Sept. 14: Marian Theatre, Allan Hancock College, 800 S. College Drive, Santa Maria. Ends Sept. 30. $15.50-$20.50. (805) 922-8313. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
Melinda Ann Parrett: Janet
Tim Casto: Brandon
Jeremy Mann: Phillip
Donald McClure: Kenneth
Phyllis Rodenberger: Mrs. Atwater
Bob Peterson: Mr. Kentley
John Patrick: David
Wynne Earle: Mrs. Wilson
Taken from the screenplay by Arthur Laurents, based on Patrick Hamilton's play "Rope's End." Directed by Jack Shouse. Scenic design by John Howell Hood. Costumes by Frederick P. Deeben. Lighting by Angeline Lee Summers. Sound by Brian MacQueen. Stage manager Jennifer A. White.