“Rear Window” Is Less Suspense and More Character Study

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Hal (Kevin Bacon) at left watches the Thorwalds (Robert Stanton and Melinda Page Hamilton). Photo by Joan Marcus
Hal (Kevin Bacon) at left watches the Thorwalds (Robert Stanton and Melinda Page Hamilton). Photo by Joan Marcus

By Karen Isaacs

It’s already sold out but audiences may be perplexed by the new show Rear Window now at Hartford Stage through Nov. 15.  Why the sell out?  Kevin Bacon stars as Hal Jeffries.

You may recognize the title. Rear Window is a classic American suspense film directed by Alfred Hitchcock but it was based on a short story (“It Had to be Murder”) by Cornell Woolrich, a well-known crime writer of the 1930s-50s.

Whenever you take a well-known film title and make a stage adaptation there are always questions: is the play faithful to the film?  How does it manage to keep it from being static?

First of all, the adaptation by playwright Keith Redden, a Yale Drama School grad, goes back to the original short story for most of the film. The film changed the profession of the main character (called Jeff) in the film, several characters were added including a beautiful woman as the love interest (Grace Kelly), and a nurse.

Redden has taken the original story, changed some of it, added some interesting overtones that draw both from Woolrich’s own life and the film noir period.

Director Darko Tresnjak has kept the film noir period with exquisite set, costumes, lighting and sound effects.

McKInley Belcher III and Kevin Bacon.  Photo by Joan Marcus
McKInley Belcher III and Kevin Bacon. Photo by Joan Marcus

You may not be on the edge of your seat except for possibly a few minutes at the end;  Redden, Bacon and Tresnjak have made this more of a character study of Hal and Sam, a young southern African-American who becomes his aide.

With any suspense play, too many plot details will spoil some of the audience’s fun.

As the play opens, Hal is a hard-drinking crime journalist who has a broken leg and is confined to his apartment. He spends his time – days and nights – looking into the windows of the apartment building next store. Most of what he sees is mundane – a young woman who may be a dancer but also a prostitute, a young married couple – and others.

But he is fascinated by one couple: the woman drinks a lot and Hal is convinced that she is being abused by her husband.  When she is not seen for a few days, he is sure that the husband has killed her and gotten rid of the body.

Sam appears at the apartment apparently having met Hal in a bar and been invited to visit;  Hal does not remember the encounter, but Sam manages to become Hal’s assistant and soon accomplice in trying to find out what has happened to the wife’s body.

The other major character is a stereotypical hard boiled NY police detective Boyne; he and Hal have worked together in the past but they’ve had a falling out.  Boyne is a racist and menacing to Sam.

Kevin Bacon, John Bedford Lloyd, and McKinley Belccher III.  Photo by Joan Marcus
Kevin Bacon, John Bedford Lloyd, and McKinley Belccher III. Photo by Joan Marcus

Through Boyne we learn other things about Hal – how he got the broken leg, why he and Boyne had a falling out, and the details of a story Hal wrote about a Southern trial.

Redden has added two major themes to the play that were not present in the film nor short story: racism and homosexuality.  (It is interesting to note Woolrich had one leg amputated, lived reclusively in NYC residence hotel for much of his life and was homosexual.)

Redden clearly hints that the relationship between Hal and Sam involves a sexual attraction. Boyne obviously is aware of Hal’s preferences and early on picks up on the potential for a sexual relationship between the two.

In addition, the issue of racism in both the south and in NYC is clearly stated – no implications are needed.  Boyne makes threatening comments and gestures to Sam.  Hal’s more liberal viewpoint has caused a falling out between him and Boyne.

What is most intriguing about this production are the set, lighting and sound effects. Alexander Dodge, who designs many sets at Hartford, has created the apartment and the window looking out on the neighboring apartment building.  BUT the walls of the apartment slide away to give both Hal and the audience at much better view of what is going on in the various apartments.  The apartment of Thorwald and his wife also at times swivels so that more can be seen.  It is ingenious.

Robert Stanton.  Photo by Joan Marcus
Robert Stanton. Photo by Joan Marcus

Projections by Sean Niewenhus are used on the outside of the building – sometimes it is a large eye. York Kennedy has created the cool, urban lighting so necessary in film noir and Jane Shaw has added the sound effects that give it the ‘40s feel.

Director Darko Tresnjak said he felt the only way to present this play was “kaleidoscopically” and he has done that, constantly focusing our eyes and attention on different aspects of the play.  It works to give the piece a cinemagraphic feel yet still keep it as a definite stage piece.

But the big question is how does Keven Bacon do?  It has to be mixed.  He plays a man who is very self-contained; he is hiding large parts of himself not only from us but even from his own acknowledgement.  Thus, he is controlled and hidden.  Bacon does a good job at that but the problem is that is causes our attention to stray from Hal to the other more expressive characters. In addition, at times he was quite soft spoken so that some of his lines were lost.  I hope this improves during the run.

The other main characters are excellent. McKinley Belcher III gives us a Sam who is

Kevin bacon.  Photo by Joan Marcus
Kevin bacon. Photo by Joan Marcus

wary and constantly alert to the dangers present for a black man in America.  He has seen too much.  John Bedford Lloyd plays the detective Boyne as the blustery and probably corrupt and racist man he is.  Also doing good work are Melinda Page Hamilton who plays both Mrs. Thorwald and in a brief flashback, Hal’s ex-wife.  Robert Stanton seems a little slight as Thorwald – how could he abuse her.

The result is a play that at times focuses more on Sam than on Hal and much more on both of them then the mystery of the Thorwald’s.

There is promise in the 80 minute piece, but I suspect the script and some of the performances need work.

Rear Window at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford, through Nov. 15.  For tickets contact hartfordstage.org or 860-527-5151.

Drawing of stage set by Alexander Dodge.
Drawing of stage set by Alexander Dodge.

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