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Twisty bromance takes center stage in noirish ‘Strangers on a Train’

  • COURTESY PETER SWANZY, SWANZY MEDIA

    Geronimo Son, right, portrays the charismatic ne’er-do-well Charles Bruno, who stalks Jefferson Davis as the architect Guy Haines in ProArts Playhouse’s production of “Strangers on a Train,” playing through Sept. 29 at Azeka Shopping Center.

No, but you’ve seen the movie? If it’s “Strangers on a Train” we’re talking about, your mind’s eye will be dancing with visions of a cigarette lighter agleam in the twin lenses of a woman’s glasses, of spectators in the bleachers (all but one!) following a tennis ball back and forth and back and forth across the net, of an out-of-control carousel spinning off its axle, all in Alfred Hitchcock’s midcentury black and white.

Turn to Patricia Highsmith’s acid-etched novel of the same name, published just the year before the movie, and what do you find? Not one of those defining cinematic moments. But the key conceit is there: You kill the monkey on my back, and I’ll kill the monkey on your back. Crisscross. Two perfect murders. Who will ever connect the dots? We never met.

From this weekend through Sept. 29, the ProArts Playhouse at the Azeka Shopping Center rolls into the new season with a third iteration of “Strangers on a Train.” As adapted for the London stage by the playwright and screenwriter Craig Warner six years ago, Hitchcock’s queasy, one-sided bromance reverts to Highsmith’s more ambivalent geometry, possibly multitriangular, with twisted Oedipal inflections.

Geronimo Son appears as the charismatic ne’er-do-well Charles Bruno, stalking Jefferson Davis as the architect Guy Haines, an Arrow-collar type in thrall to the rules. But Bruno (who pleads with Guy to call him “Charley,” as his mother does) instantly senses something unexpressed.

“I can spot a spark a mile off,” he says seconds after the two strike up their first conversation. Later Bruno daydreams out loud of their going away together, apparently forever, “to some other planet even.” Guy never says yes when it counts, but he never says no.

At ProArts the train-riding strangers’ engineer is Tina Kailiponi, a drama teacher with extensive production credits in island community theater, at the controls as director in her own right of her first show for grown-ups.

As a frequent assistant to David Johnston, creator perhaps most notably of the Maui Academy of Performing Arts’ landmark “Les Miz” of 2013, Kailiponi acknowledges her debt to his uncluttered, cinematic approach. She has composed her stage pictures for “Strangers” in grayscale, spiking each scene with one splash of red.

Local audiences with an eye for stagecraft will recognize Kailiponi’s sliding panels, minimal furnishings and ever-present double-width train seats on casters as bedrock School of Johnston.

“The basis,” say Kailiponi, “is to start with something simple, keep it functional, then work your way up.” Forget the helicopters and falling chandeliers, in other words, but dive deep into the characters.

“In rehearsal we realized that for everything you see, there’s something you don’t see. So, we ran with that. Every character has secrets that are never shared, least of all with other members of the company.”

Even so, at a run-through last weekend, without light or sound cues to turn up the heat, some players may have tipped their cards a little. As Elsie, Bruno’s smitten, age-defying mother, Anne Marie Wilder hinted at self- knowledge within an iron butterfly’s self-delusions. Guy’s endlessly reassuring second wife, Anne Faulkner, on the other hand, remained the total enigma. In the absence of Megan Caccamo, her lines were distributed between the stage manager, Kiegan Otterson, who acted some of her scenes on stage, and a female assistant who read them from offstage.

When it was over, the two leads came out front to size up their own parts and each other’s.

“Bruno’s got a zest for life,” says Son of the man he plays. “He’s willing to explore, to go places. I like that. I dislike that’s he’s a drunk, burning himself away, throwing away his potential. Like Bruno, Guy’s a dreamer, but he’s practical, too. He wants to build things. What I dislike about Guy is that he’s a coward. He needs to be who he is.”

Walking in the other man’s shoes, Davis likes Guy’s private struggle. “Guy has a gun, remember, which he bought before the story begins,” Davis says. “And he’s never shot it. I like his pride that he’s been able to suppress half of his duality. I don’t like the way he allows Bruno to pull his strings.

“What do I like about Bruno, apart from his jawline? His confidence. What I don’t like is that he’s had everything handed to him. He’s a spoiled brat. He doesn’t take things seriously.

“There’s so much subtext in this play,” Davis continues, “more than in any other I’ve done. At one point, as an exercise, Tina asked us not to speak our lines, but to pull up subtext. I thought it would be really hard. Once we started, I felt we could go on forever.”

New season with first executive director

With “Strangers on a Train,” the ProArts Playhouse launches not just a new season, but a new era under the leadership of Lin McEwan, 39, the company’s first executive director.

Over recent seasons, Maui audiences have cheered her in the Audrey Hepburn role in the thriller “Wait Until Dark,” in the Liza Minnelli role in “Cabaret” and as women’s rights advocate Mary Wollstonecraft in “Vindication,” a new play from McEwan’s own pen.

ProArts was founded on a professional footing in 2006 by Jonathan Lehman. The company first appeared at the Maui Beach Hotel. As of 2010, ProArts has occupied its permanent 104-seat home at the Azeka Shopping Center. After Lehman’s death in 2016, Richard Vetterli ran the theater pro bono for nearly a year. McEw-an’s immediate predecessor was Kristi Scott, who announced the 2019-20 season’s lineup in April at a matinee of “Avenue Q.”

Officially, McEwan is just a week into her new job. But she’s been transitioning for several months now, and her stamp will be immediately apparent in a new chamber music series, art installations, a writing workshop and other initiatives.

Her quote for the day: “I’m having the time of my life.”

‘Strangers on a Train’

Presented by ProArts Playhouse

>> Where: Azeka Shopping Center, 1280 S. Kihei Road

>> When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, through Sept. 29

>> Cost: $27 ($24 seniors)

>> Info: 463-6550 or proartsmaui.com


Matthew Gurewitsch comes to Hawaii from three decades in New York as a cultural commentator for The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and other media. Browse his archive at beyondcriticism.com.


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