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'Rope' leaves some details hanging

| Monday, Oct. 8, 2012, 8:57 p.m.
Drew Yenchak
John Steffenauer (left) as Wyndham Brandon and Nicholas J. Browne as Charles Granillo

Patrick Hamilton's play “Rope” is promoted as a thriller or suspense drama, not a mystery.

Most widely and enduringly known as a 1948 Alfred Hitchcock film, Hamilton's 1929 stage play revolves around a kill-for-thrill murder committed by two undergraduates.

We know they're guilty.

When the play begins, they've just finished loading their classmate's corpse into an onstage chest. We also know it was premeditated because they're about to welcome guests — including the victim's father and aunt — who have been invited to a dinner where the chest will be used as a serving table.

The suspense is whether or not they'll get away with a crime that is as senseless as it is egotistical.

So, the production of “Rope” that's being performed through Sunday by The Rep is not a whodunit.

But there's much about it that's mysterious.

The chief mystery is why director Elmore James has chosen to update and relocate this drama from 1929 London to contemporary Boston.

In his program notes, he explains that he was trying to make an American statement about the callous disregard for life.

He has only done it partially and without any noticeable improvement.

The two young killers may talk about hauling the body up to Maine.

But present-day American undergraduates, even hard-core, upper-class academic types, are unlikely to order a distinctly British “gin and tah” or confess a fondness for P.G. Wodehouse novels.

His time could have been better served by relieving this tale of murder most tedious of its extended “how-do-you-do”exchanges and pointless passages of the smallest small talk imaginable that are littered with outdated British slang.

But for the Maplethorpe photos above the grand piano and a phone from the 1950s, Gianni Downs' serviceable set has the air of an Edwardian flat. Remove the phone and you could plausibly do Shaw or Oscar Wilde here. But, even though the crime's mastermind recently inherited the apartment from a relative, there's little indication that we're in the here and now.

Cathleen Crocker-Perry's costumes offer clues to character but ranges from smart contemporary to a guy in a three-piece blue-velvet suit, making the assembled guests look as though they're attending a come-dressed-in-your-favorite-decade party.

The cast of eight soldiers on admirably in an attempt to inject tension into the proceedings.

As the two murderers, actors John Steffenauer and Nicholas J. Browne bicker, threaten and fret with great energy. And Rebecca Knowles provides bright and lively interest as Leila Arden, a young guest.

As the evening wends its leisurely way, the greatest suspense is how much longer it will take before their crime is found out.

Wisely, James decided to forego an intermission so the show plays out in real time and in just under 80 minutes.

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