Smart Blonde

It's not essential that you have a working knowledge of Alfred Hitchcock before heading into Hitchcock Blonde,which is making its American premiere at South Coast Repertory. But it could make all the difference between whether you think Terry Johnson's play is a two-hour-and-20-minute exercise in smartly written futility, or one of the most amazing theatrical feats you've ever experienced.

Johnson's play occurs in three places and times: a Greek villa in 1999, a Hollywood sound stage in 1959 and, most interestingly, on celluloid in the year 1919. The through-line is an unfinished film that the young Hitchcock worked on in 1919. Two academic film restorationists discover the decaying reel in a pile of apparent cinematic junk and travel to Greece to try to salvage as many precious frames as possible. This plot line is intercut with that of Hitchcock working with—and on—Janet Leigh's body double from Psycho.The 1919 film also comes into play here, as a physical and psychological manifestation of Hitchcock's fascination with blond actresses.

Of course, there's a lot more going on here than film restoration. In the modern period, it's a middle-aged academic trying to bang an impressionable protge; in 1959, it's Hitchcock's eccentric relationship with Leigh's body double, Blonde (Sarah Aldrich, in the play's one multifaceted performance): someone who desperately wants to be famous so she can be “endlessly stared at while endlessly shopping” but is tied to her abusive husband. There are also self-inflicted cuttings, violent stabbings, corpses in refrigerator trucks, irons to the sides of human heads, naked women gliding over the stage, humping in a shower, and some of the most eye-popping use of moving imagery and virtual sets I've ever seen in a theater, courtesy of video designer William Dudley, who uses 3D animation software to pull off things in a theater that you've probably never seen before.

But Hitchcock's persona, and personality, casts an elephantine shadow over everything. It's there in the play's best moments—whenever Dakin Matthews, who pulls off a spot-on impersonation of the corpulent Englishman, is onstage, and its worst passages: the trite affair between the English academic (a suitably snooty Robin Sachs) and his ridiculously clichd young student, Jennifer (Adriana DeMeo, who might be a pretty good actress if given more to work with than this overwrought, poorly defined creature).

The fact that this play exists in three time periods, and that academics are attempting to solve a riddle left behind by an enigmatic genius, gives Hitchcock Blondea feel similar to Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, another play where past and present co-exist onstage. But where Stoppard's play left you as mentally exhausted as an intense workout—it's a good tired—Hitchcock Blondemay well leave you as frustrated as a hand-job by an arthritic hooker. You wait for the payoff, the riddle's answer, the money shot, but it just never comes. At times the play feels like an apology for sexual predation, or a middle-aged man's wet dream of flipping the bird to mortality by nailing a young hottie; at others, it feels like a passionate examination of Hitchcock's sexually charged cinematic brilliance, something not grounded in perversion or voyeurism so much as rejection and unrequited love.

Ultimately, Hitchcock Blondeforces an individual reaction; it's up to each viewer to connect the dots. The question is whether you believe the dots you think you see are worth the effort.

HITCHCOCK BLONDE, SOUTH COAST REPERTORY, 655 TOWN CENTER DR., COSTA MESA, (714) 708-5555. TUES., 7:30 P.M.; WED.-FRI., 8 P.M.; SAT., 2:30 N 8 P.M.; SUN., 2:30 N 7:30 P.M. THROUGH MARCH 12. $28-$58.

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