Truth can be stranger than fiction, especially when fiction becomes reality. In the Village Playhouse’s original production Strangers on a Train, film and radio actor Ray Milland (Noah Smith) finds himself transported into the world of his radio play character, professional tennis player Guy Haines. Haines gets caught in a murderous agreement with a strange man he meets on a train, Bruno Anthony (Christian Self). The question of what is real and what is fiction is woven throughout as Milland/Haines bounces back and forth and the other radio actors remain in “reality.”
Village Playhouse Artistic Director Keely Enright and director Robbie Thomas based the original work on the 1951 Lux Radio Theatre broadcast of Alfred Hitchcock’s film Strangers on a Train. The dual reality of Keely and Thomas’ creation is reminiscent of another iconic drama, The Twilight Zone. The radio play takes place in a white-tiled art deco studio at Columbia Broadcasting in New York City. Period microphones and sound effect props decorate the elliptical stage. The cast is dressed in stylish 1950s costumes, some apparently vintage, with hair and make-up fitting the era.
The overall production smoothly transitions between the two realms of time and space. Light and sound are effectively designed to signify Milland’s change in consciousness from acting to living as Haines. Thomas’ talented supporting cast is well-paced as they move in slow motion, while Smith’s Milland reacts naturally in real time before assuming Haine’s identity.
The sound is crisp, and the warm vocal microphones lend an authenticity to the production. The film noir lighting design is the production’s major flaw, but it can be fixed. Actors make long treks across the stage, continuing the action and dialogue in the dark. Lighting cues are ill-timed, and the saturation levels do not blend. Though it has good intentions, the effect of the footlights is horrible.
Under Thomas’ direction, the Village actors are well cast. Although the opening scene is a bit staid as the actors read their radio scripts, the cast effectively drives the plot from beat to beat. The two talented lead actors, Smith and Self, have good chemistry on stage, and they are grounded in their characters, but their timing is awkward in places. Self is slow in cutting off Smith’s lines, leaving him hanging in air, and Smith is not prepared to continue with the line to fill in the gap. Self has an intuitive understanding of his characters’ motivations, which shows in the personality of his face and body. Boyd and Samille Basler are especially adept at action and reaction and connecting with their scene partners. The scene between Basler and Self is particularly entertaining. Thomas gracefully stepped in for the role of the radio play’s producer, William Keighley, in the absence of the regular cast member, Matt Giedraitis. For an extra treat, Thomas hosts the show as Hitchcock himself, with a surprisingly strong resemblance.
Original works are always to be commended for their courage and creativity. The Village Playhouse audience enthusiastically received the show, and as any thespian will tell you, that’s the ultimate reality.