Theater Review: STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills)

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by Shari Barrett on February 9, 2024

in Theater-Los Angeles


Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 psychological film noir thriller Strangers on a Train, which he directed and produced to mixed reviews, was based on the 1950 novel of the same name by Patricia Highsmith. But since then, the film has been regarded much more favorably; and in 2021 was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” The 1987 film Throw Mama from the Train by Danny DeVito was inspired by Strangers on a Train, which is also watched by DeVito’s character in the film.

The story concerns, yes, two strangers who meet on a train. One is an architect, Guy Haines, on the way to get a divorce from his cheating wife, and the other is Charles Bruno, who turns out to be a talkative drunken psychopath who suggests that they “exchange” murders so that neither will be caught. At first, their plan seems to be paying off when one of the murders is committed, but as for the other — it’s a deal Guy never signed onto. That begins a broken web of deception which causes the formerly innocent architect to fall into a fatal trap as his life spirals out of control.

But honestly, I recommend you watch Hitchcock’s fine film which tells the story far better than the current production of Craig Warner’s 2013 play, directed by Jules Aaron at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills. I’d like to give it the benefit of the doubt — off nights do happen in live theater– but I was very disappointed with Aaron’s slow and pedantic directing style as there were long and very unnecessary pauses in this almost three-hour show. (But that’s OK; it only felt like six.) Aaron’s best touch was a soundtrack to fill in for his missing direction; it’s uncertain what tracks sound designer Nick Foran used, but it set the film noir context beautifully.

At the top of the cast is Michael Mullen, whose over-the-top antics as the whacked-out, drunken, rich Mama’s boy Charles Bruno are a highlight of the production. Though a bit overzealous from time to time, such as his heavy drunk scenes, Mullen gives this forced friendship the perfect creepiness. The rest of the cast was a bit flat in their deliveries until anger overtook them. Joe Clabby plays the seemingly stoic architect Guy Haines; Todd Andrew Ball is Guy’s friend Frank Myers whose few short scenes dropped prescient hints of what was to come; Sharron Shayne is Charles’s devoted and clueless mother Elsie; Anicia Petrovich  is Anne Faulkner, Guy’s girlfriend, the emotionally stable rock upon which the men attempt to stand when their evil sides emerge; Michael Kerr is Guy’s best friend and business partner Robert Treacher; and Larry Eisenberg is Arthur Gerard, the former cop and friend of Elsie who discovers “clues” that implicate Charles and Guy as the perpetrators of the two recently committed murders. Eisenberg plays Arthur’s unravelling of the crimes to perfection, creating just the right mix of humor and intellectual wallop.

Along with his starring role, Michael Mullen is to be commended for his early 1950s period-perfect, beautiful costume design, especially the ladies’ dresses in a pattern prevalent in the era — and shoes. All of which both Petrovic and Shayne displayed as perfect matches to their characters’ social status and desire to impress. And I am still wondering just how many suits with too-short ties Mullen, in gorgeous shoes, wore throughout the play. Oh, and there are fabulous hats!

Perhaps fans of mysteries and thrillers will be able to forgive the acting deficiencies and the drawn-out pace as the dastardly goings on unravel. The script is quite good if sometimes melodramatic. Personally, I found that the overall sluggishness, and “reading-from-the-script” line deliveries with little character development backing them up, made this production a real snoozefest at times. This is one slow-moving train.

photos by Eric Keitel
poster design by Doug Haverty

Strangers on a Train
Theatre 40
Reuben Cordova Theatre, 241 S. Moreno, on the campus of Beverly Hills High School
accessed via the driveway at the intersection of Durant and Moreno Drives
Wed–Sat at 7:30; Sun at 2
ends on February 18, 2024
for tickets ($35), call 310.364.0535 or visit Theatre 40

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