Strangers on a Train Review – The Best Laid Plans…

Michael Mullin, Anica Petrovic, and Joe Clabby in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN - Photo by Eric Keitel
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“Strangers on a Train,” Patricia Highsmith’s 1949 novel, has inspired a good deal of interest in the mystery-thriller genre. In 1950, the novel caught the attention of iconic motion picture director Alfred Hitchcock, who purchased the film rights from author Highsmith at bargain basement prices by concealing his involvement in the projected film project. In 1951, Hitchcock’s film of the same name was released starring Farley Granger, Ruth Roman, and Robert Walker. Even though the film drew mixed reviews when first released, attitudes mellowed with time as appreciation for Hitchcock’s techniques grew. In 2021, “Strangers on a Train” was selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant (December 14, 2021).” For California trivia buffs, please note that the seminal interior scene in the amusement park was filmed at a fairground in Canoga Park, while exterior shots were from a Chatsworth ranch. In 2013, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN was adapted for the stage by Craig Warner from Highsmith’s novel and premiered in London in 2013. Now this mystery-thriller comes to Theatre Forty in Los Angeles in 2024 to give nail-biters something to chew on.

The time progresses from 1952 to 1954, and the place is assorted locations in America and Mexico. Two strangers, architect Guy Haines (Joe Clabby) and playboy Charles Bruno (Michael Mullin) just happen to meet on a train, each going to different destinations in the Southwest. As Guy tells Bruno that he is planning on divorcing his unfaithful wife, an idea starts to form in Bruno’s psychopathic mind, given his poor relationship with his father. Why not kill two birds with one stone and, at the same time, create the perfect crime? Bruno should murder Guy’s wife, while Guy should kill Bruno’s pop. Since neither man has met the intended victim and therefore has no motive – and since the person with a motive has an ironclad alibi – the police will remain stymied for all time. What could possibly go wrong?

For starters, Guy can’t seem to get on board with the plan – while Bruno merrily goes on to do the deed. In psychological twists galore, the story – like the train – keeps speeding to its inevitable destination. Director Jules Aaron helms the production with a careful eye to the slowly building suspense and psychological tension inherent in the piece. Clabby and Mullin are able to disintegrate convincingly as the tale steams along. Supporting characters like Anne Faulkner (Anica Petrovic), Guy’s light of love, and Elsie Bruno (Sharron Shayne), Bruno’s very Freudian mother, keep the action moving.

The production team does a creditable job, including Jeff G. Rack for set design, Derrick McDaniels for lighting, and Nick Foran for sound. Of special note is the clever incorporation of the murder scene into the mundane home setting. STRANGERS ON A TRAIN will definitely appeal to mystery-thriller buffs, who might want to take a peek at Hitchcock’s film after viewing the stage production.

STRANGERS ON A TRAIN runs through February 18, 2024, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and at 2 p.m. on Sundays. Theatre Forty is located at Beverly Hills High School, 241 S. Moreno Drive, Beverly Hills, CA 90212. Tickets are $35. For information and reservations, call 310-364-0535 or go online.

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