Dallas — British film director and playwright Terry Johnson premiered the play Hitchcock Blonde in London in 2003, and it has been produced several times in the past 15 years, including at Houston’s Alley Theatre in 2007. Now Giant Entertainment presents the regional premiere of the work at Frank’s Place, the small teaching studio/black box space upstairs the Kalita Humphreys Theater.
Before the play begins, director Benjamin Lutz fills the scrim behind the playing space with clips from classic Hitchcock films, including Vertigo, The Birds and Psycho. He uses the intimacy of the theater to make us all guilty voyeurs as we watch two intertwined stories of sexual exploitation played out three feet from front row patrons. I moved my foot, so a falling body could better sprawl on the floor.
In 1999, a paunchy media academic (Jeff Burleson) persuades a brainy, high-strung student (Kayli Hessler) half his age to travel to his Greek Island villa for six weeks to help reconstruct the fragile reels of what might be a “lost” 1919 Hitchcock film. The girl thinks the professor is an old “pompous ass,” but can’t resist the intrigue of being a first witness to such a rare film find.
In 1959, we watch Janet Leigh’s peroxide blonde body double (Nikki Cloer) for Psycho’s shower scene strip to her underwear for Hitch (Robert Bradford Smith) himself. She really needs this job because her abusive husband (DR Mann Hanson) regularly greets her at home by wordlessly pulling the belt out of his trouser loops, either to access his organ or to beat the hell out of her. We’re never sure which happens.
The stories play back and forth, and we get way too much canned lecture talk from the garrulous professor, and some sassy responses from perky student trying to salvage a C in his film class. That whole sick romance is a weary cliché. More interesting are the morbidly funny scenes of blonde-obsessed Hitch, stuffy and sneering, clarifying to a desperate young actress that she must be totally nude in order to get the scene shot correctly, and she will never say a word. Talk about a dumb blonde quandary.
At long last, towards the end of a play that runs two hours, plus a 15-minute intermission, we see what may be the recreation of the so-called “lost” film. The finale is a lulu, morbid, darkly funny and sort of awful in its implications of Hitchcock’s fixation on blonde actresses.
Smith is a comically haughty Hitchcock, jowly and deliberate, but conveys no spark of danger that might better ignite the scenes with Cloer’s blonde stand-in. Cloer is terrific, titillating and touching in her description of what it’s like to stand nude and speechless in front of a cast and crew who regard her as a prop.
Burleson’s middle-aged professor seemed a little under-rehearsed on opening weekend, as he stumbled occasionally over the long, lecture-like soliloquys. Small wonder, since the words are so boring. Hessler is a gem as the wary student, delivering her lines in a precise British accent. Petite and with sharp features, there’s something delightfully faunish in her allure.
Linking the show to today’s #metoo concerns, producer Ryan Matthieu Smith has arranged a Friday Night Talk-Back Series for the run of the show, inviting women involved in film, acting and women’s advocacy to address the theme of abuse, on and off the stage and screen, then and now. Actress Liz Mikel appears after the show on March 16, and Genesis Women’s shelter Director Krista Fultz is the guest March 23.