Star rating: *** (out of 4)
High above The Talented Mr. Ripley’s dream-like set, a magnified painting depicts “The Judgment of Midas.” But in Phyllis Nagy’s stage adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s psychological thriller, at Bethesda’s Round House Theatre, everything and everyone Tom Ripley touches turns into putty—not gold.
The endearing con man Ripley (Helen Hayes Award winner Karl Miller) agrees to travel to Italy at the request of a wealthy American businessman, Herbert Greenleaf (John Lescault), to find Greenleaf’s estranged son, Ricky (Marcus Kyd), and bring him back to the States. When Ripley finds the young man and his girlfriend soaking up a life of leisure in a seaside Italian village, he befriends them and quietly entangles Ricky’s life with his own.
Under the direction of Blake Robinson, Miller takes on the title role with cool confidence, letting the audience catch fleeting glimpses of his sinister motives. Playing Ricky gradually slipping under Ripley’s spell, Kyd pulls off trance-like dream sequences with haunting precision. In a drunken scene that lesser actors might exaggerate, Miller and Kyd stumble and slur with effortless realism. The seven-person cast—all of whom except Miller and Kyd play more than one role—is uniformly fluid.
After the smoldering buildup of the first act and its thrilling last scene, the second half has the potential to pack a theatrical punch, but it never quite gets there. What really makes this production work is its ability to take a scheming, amoral villain and make him sympathetic. With nuanced acting, an imaginative interpretation, and boatfuls of charm, Mr. Ripley entertainingly and stylishly challenges ideas about right and wrong. And that takes, well, talent.
The Talented Mr. Ripley (recommended for ages 17 and up) runs through September 26 at Round House Theatre in Bethesda. Tickets ($10 to $60) can be purchased by calling 240-644-1100, online, or at the box office.