HARTFORD, CONN. >> Elegant. sleek, stylish, remarkably penetrating in its view of human nature and voyeurism, Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 film "Rear Window" is an enduring, much-admired piece of work for good reason.
Its source, "It Had to be Murder," a short story by Cornell Woolrich that was first published in Dime Magazine in February 1942, is the essence of simplicity in storytelling — a taut, shrewdly constructed first-person narrative by a man named Hal Jeffries who is confined to a wheelchair because of a broken leg and spends much of his time looking across the courtyard outside his apartment window at his neighbors and comes to believe, despite a burst of self-doubt, that a man in one of the apartments across the way has murdered his wife.
There is nothing intimate or simple, stylish or elegant about "Rear Window," playwright Keith Reddin's adaptation of Woolrich's story which borrows the title of Hitchcock's film, holds to the spine of Woolrich's story and then, together with director Darko Tresnjak and his design team at Hartford Stage, spins a big, bold, nightmarish narrative that blends film noir with a hint of Fritz Lang German expressionism in a wildly theatrical exercise that all but grinds the story — not to mention its elements of surprise and suspense — beneath the tonnage of theater technology.
There is nothing subtle or nuanced here. This is Woolrich writ large. Kevin Bacon is steadfast as Jeffries, here an investigative reporter whose latest first-hand reporting triumph was about the brutal "justice" served by the police in a rural Southern town on an 18-year-old black youth from the North who made the mistake of smiling at a young Southern white woman.
It is the late 1940s, early '50s perhaps, and racial bigotry is by no means confined to the South. In Reddin's adaptation, racial bigotry is alive and well in the urban North, seen here in the person of the cruel, blatantly black baiting and hating cop, Boyne (a forceful John Bedford Lloyd), who takes one look at Hal's helper, Sam (a credible McKinley Belcher III) and, almost drooling with anticipation, sneers that he would like nothing more than to "just bring you in, just you and me. We'd have ourselves a real party," Boyne says dragging out "real" with all the snarling contempt and menace he can summon.
For his part, Sam has attached himself to Hal, scouting him out at a bar, admiring him for his work. But Hal is in free fall, burnt out. He drinks, a lot, and as the walls of his apartment slip through the stage floor, the apartment building across the alley is exposed, the open windows offering glimpses into other short stories that are unfolding without words; stories about promises kept and not kept; about disappointment and fulfillment; about resolution; about lives of quiet desperation, none more so perhaps than the quIet desperation that, at least in Jeffries' mind, becomes not so quiet in the apartment of Lars Thorwald (played by Robert Stanton as a mild, passive, yielding needy man ground under the onslaught of a wife (effectively played by Melinda Page Hamilton, who doubles up for one affecting scene as Jeffries' ex-wife) whose life has not turned out the way she expected.
Jeffries becomes obsessed with the Thorwalds, engaging in conversation with the wife in a hallucinatory fog; talking directly to Thorwald on the phone in an attempt to egg him on, force him to act, make a mistake, reveal himself until, finally, there is a reckoning in Jeffries' own apartment that plays out in a ludicrous, laughably staged sequence that lacks any suspense.
There are undercurrents throughout that are drawn in part from Woolrich's own closeted life; his own failed marriage to an actress. There are faintly hinted-at suggestions for the failure of Jeffries' marriage; what it is Jeffries may want of Sam or Sam may want of him but it's never overt.
More than a anything, this diary of a mad freelance investigative journalist often plays like the hallucinogenic terrors of a man in feverish deep withdrawal. At one point, a steadily enlarging mass of faces, eyes, voices advance on him. At times, the line between reality and illusion is virtually nonexistent. Jeffries sees the people in the other apartments as "actors in my own movie," he says at one point. "My own personal theater, right outside," he says at another.
Unfortunately, all the musing about the demons, personal and otherwise, that Jeffries battles on his road to drying out; about the little murders that go on every day in lives outside our windows; about power and politics and hypocrisy in American culture and society, gets us nowhere. When all is said and done, this "Rear Window" is a triumph of theater technology over storytelling.
Like Jeffries' fixation on Thorwald, the dazzling technical wizardry created by scenic designer Alexander Dodge, lighting designer York Kennedy, projections designer Sean Nieuwenhus and sound designer Jane Shaw for Tresnjak's bold vision takes on a life of its own, overwhelming, rather than serving, the story it is meant to tell.
What: "Rear Window." Adapted for the stage by Keith Reddin. Based on the story "It Had to Be Murder" by Cornell Woolrich. Directed by Darko Tresnjak
With: Kevin Bacon, McKinley Belcher III, Melinda Page Hamilton, John Bedford Lloyd, Robert Stanton
Designers: Alexander Dodge, scenic; Linda Cho, costume; York Kennedy, lighting; Jane Shaw, sound; Sean Nieuwenhus, projection; Charles G. LaPonte, wig and hair
Where: Hartford Stage, 50 Church St. Hartford, Conn.
When: Through Nov. 15. All performances sold out
Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes