Given the right dosage of care and encouragement, Rear Window could become the best old-fashioned thriller Broadway has seen since Ira Levin’s Deathtrap. And that was a very long time ago.
Just don’t expect Grace Kelly — or James Stewart or any facsimiles thereof. A terrific Kevin Bacon in the marquee role is reason enough for this project to move forward from Connecticut’s Hartford Stage, where it’s trying out. And if he’s not, there’s also Alexander Dodge’s inspired set, which emulates the claustrophobic mis en scene of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film more closely than nearly anything else about this tight, crackling show. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
You know the basic outline of the film: Risk-taking photographer L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries, wheelchair-bound after smashing up his leg, has been entertaining himself by peeping into the lives of the folks across the alley from his crummy apartment. They’re an appropriately colorful bunch, including a usually semi-clothed dancer, amorous newlyweds and a Miss Lonelyhearts. When he suspects foul play in one of the apartments, he makes accomplices of his gorgeous debutante lover, his nurse and a skeptical police detective in trapping the killer.
Rear Window was based on the story “It Had To Be Murder,” by Cornell Woolrich, who for a time ranked up there with Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler, providing suspense fodder for the likes of Francois Truffaut and, in this case, Hitchcock. “It Had To be Murder” (which was itself drawn from a Jules Verne story) opens with the lines “I didn’t know their names. I’d never heard their voices…They were the rear-window dwellers around me.”
It’s easy to see the potential Hitchcock saw in the story as a vehicle for his two stars, and so “It Had To Be Murder” became Rear Window, screenplay by John Michael Hayes, morphing in the process from a gritty thriller (juiced with with lines like “The door went whoop! behind him. For about 10 minutes after he stormed out my numbed mind was in a sort of straitjacket. Then it started to wriggle its way free. The hell with the police”) to a snappy showcase for two sexy stars with great chemistry and, especially in Kelly’s case, sensational Edith Head costumes. For starters, there’s no girlfriend in the story at all; the role of amanuensis is fulfilled by Sam, described only vaguely as someone who’s been with Jeff for a decade. Jeff is a celebrated, hard-drinking reporter, not photographer. And the humorous diversions provided by Hitchcock’s prurient camera are sad reminders that life in these buildings, in this unnamed district, is pretty grim all around.
Playwright Keith Reddin (All The Rage) and rising director Darko Tresnjak (A Gentleman’s Guide To Love & Murder, which also originated at the Hartford Stage) have taken nearly as many liberties in adapting the story as Hayes did, though with somewhat more empathy for Woolrich, an alcoholic closeted gay man who lived with his mother until her death, in shabby Upper West Side hotels. No Grace Kelly, no wise-cracking Thelma Ritter as the sidekick nor looming Raymond Burr as the murderer, and gosh, no Jimmy Stewart. Instead we have Bacon, whiskey-voiced, narrow-eyed and looking (or at least trying real hard to look) very down-in-the-dumps. Sam is played by McKinley Belcher III as a deceptively easygoing newcomer to the city from the South, where Jeffries recently made a name for himself while covering a young black teen executed for a crime he didn’t commit.
Race and sex move front and center in Reddin’s Rear Window, and if the scenario seems, during the taut 85-minutes it takes for the story to reach its conclusion, a bit too of-the-moment, that only suggests there’s work to be done on a still evolving script. The suspense has not been short-changed; indeed, I found the play better at tension building than the film. Bacon who last appeared on Broadway in 2002’s An Almost Holy Picture, was uncertain of his lines at the performance I attended, and that prevented him from coming across as tightly-wound as I’m sure he will be as the run progresses. Still, he’s well matched by Belcher and John Bedford Lloyd’s brazenly racist cop. There are strong contributing performances by Robert Stanton and Melinda Page Hamilton as murderous husband and doomed wife.
And what a set Dodge has concocted: The curtain rises on Jeffries’ bay-windowed sitting room, facing out into the barely illuminated alley where the windows of the apartments across the way are barely visible. But when it’s time to see what’s going on there, the wall disappears and we are up-close-and personal with the “rear-window dwellers.” A revolve up stage left even shows us the apartment in question from differing perspectives. It’s serious business. It’s also atmospherically lit by York Kennedy, and the costumes all around by Linda Cho perfectly bespeak the period.
What needs serious toning down is the bombastic noir-on-steroids soundscape by Jane Shaw, and some of the dialogue between Jeffries and Sam that might better be suggested more subtly. For this is a most ungentlemanly guide to the love that dare not speak its name…and murder most foul.