'Rear Window' Set Looks Spectacular But Characters Leave Audience Cold

What did theater critic Frank Rizzo think of "Rear Window" starring Kevin Bacon at Hartford Stage?

The show: "Rear Window" at Hartford Stage.

What makes it special?: World premiere of a play based on the 1942 Cornell Woolrich short story that was the basis for a 1954 Alfred Hitchcock film. Stage play stars Kevin Bacon. Commercial producers involved, upgrading production significantly.

First impressions: And what a production it is, with the most jaw-dropping set I've seen on a regional theater stage — Alexander Dodge can take the bow here — that manages to reflect both the bleak claustrophobia and the wider urban world of the play's main character, Hal Jeffries played by Kevin Bacon.

Highlight?: That's when the first time the back wall of Jeffries' apartment drops away, revealing a multi-storied wall of separate tenement building dwellings filled with residents and building workers, each buzzing with their own everyday mini-dramas.

But the production will leave many cold with a leading character who's filled with guilt, shame and little else, some plot points that are sketchy at best and a show most memorable for its window dressing.

Fair warning: The show is based on Cornell Woolrich's 1942 short story and not the 1954 film by Alfred Hitchcock, which is quite different.

How so?: Hitchcock lightened Woolrich's bleakness and cynicism with romance, humor and a likable leading man. Keith Reddin's adaptation well reflects the solitary despair and psychoses of the original and even incorporates aspects of Woolrich's sad biography (alcoholic, closeted homosexual, recluse) into this telling.

What's the story?: Jeffries is a writer of crime stories who is confined to his small, messy apartment. His mobility is reduced to crutches and a wheelchair due to a broken leg, a result of an incident in the South where he exposed police and judicial corruption in the death of an innocent young black man. He didn't make any friends at home either when he noted that racism is also part of the institutional police culture in the North. The incident deeply affected his psyche, too, adding to his personal issues and he's now hitting the bottle big time.

Sam (McKinley Belcher III), a handsome black man new to the city from the South and a fan of Jeffries writing, arrives at his door seeking work as the writer's house-helper. Jeffries gives in and there's some coded language of flirtation.

But the tightly-wound Jeffries appears to be more interested with the private lives of his neighbors than exploring his own. One apartment in particular becomes his obsession: that of a beautiful, disillusioned dame (Melinda Page Hamilton) and her henpecked, stooge of a husband (Robert Stanton) who is on the end of his marital rope.

When the wife disappears, Jeffries suspects foul play and asks a brute of a detective he knows, Boyne, (John Bedford Lloyd), to investigate. When the gumshoe's work brings up zilch, Jeffries takes matters into his own hands using Sam in his stead.

Scratch Grace Kelly, add handsome black man: Sort of. But it's not clear if Jeffries' whisky-soaked brain is imagining things because he's beginning to hallucinate scenes, confusing the neighbor wife with his own from his past, brief marriage.

And the performances?: Bacon thoroughly commits to the nihilistic side of his character, never asking for sympathy, or softening Jeffries with anything other than an occasional sardonic line. But such a private, lonely and isolated character stays at arms length so when a crack-up inevitably comes, it's a thing of dispassionate interest, not human engagement.

Any sense of a natural connection rests in the character of Sam, gracefully played by Belcher with charm, humor and real-world speak. The towering Lloyd hits all the right villainous notes as the racist detective. Stanton brings a touch of pity to the suspected wife-killer. Hamilton is a delicious low-down dish as the suspected murder victim and also plays high society well as Jeffries' ex.

Mystery and secrets are the primal ingredients of noir, so most of the characters' are elusive and thinly drawn — with the emphasis of attitude and atmosphere.

And director Darko Tresnjak pulls out the stops with a production that's rich in ambience but light in emotional resonance.

Side note: No greater case is needed to be made for the re-instatement of "sound design" for the Tony Awards that this production whose aural landscape by Jane Shaw vitally contributes to the show's storytelling. York Kennedy's lighting from gloomy to lurid, Linda Cho's period-perfect outfits and Sean Nieuwenhuis' projections also add to the pulp fiction world in dramatic — and melodramatic — ways.

Who will like it?: Fans of noir, productions with a visual wow factor and Mr. Bacon.

Who won't?: Those who were hoping for a more engaging thriller.

For the kids?: If the teens know what Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain or Raymond Chandler are, sure. But even if they don't, they'll find the show visually cool, taut at times and as loud as a Cineplex action movie, complete with gunshots and blood.

Footnote: The show is sold out. (Now don't you wish you subscribed?) Standing-room-only seats and a sprinkling of "house" seats will be made available on Mondays, depending on availability for each coming week.

Twitter review in 140 characters or less: Production looks spectacular but the characters will leave audiences cold, if somewhat intrigued.

Thoughts on leaving the parking lot: Transferring film noir of a certain period to the stage is a tricky challenge. Yale Rep in 2003 also went all out stagecraft-wise with "The Blue Dahlia" with disappointing results, too. Is the genre's archetypes and iconography of noir, just too icy for the hot immediacy of the stage to work other than parody or pastiche?

The basics: "Rear Window'' continues through Nov. 15 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford. The running time is 85 minutes without an intermission. Information at www.hartfordstage.org and 860-527-5151.

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