Even if you have not seen his plays performed on the stage or read his novels, you are probably familiar with some of the movies adapted from the work of Ira Levin (1929-2007). I thought I knew his output pretty well until I recently came across a review by mystery author Martin Edwards (here) of a 1973 play by Levin that I had never heard of before. It sounded intriguing and I just had to read it – after all, this was a play from the writer who crafted that superb Edgar-winning thriller A Kiss Before Dying (1953), the supernatural classic Rosemary’s Baby (1967), the fantasy and social satire The Stepford Wives (1972) and the Nazi conspiracy chiller, The Boys from Brazil (1976). So what’s in Veronica’s Room then?
The following review is offered as part of Kerrie’s 2012 Alphabet of Crime community meme over at her Mysteries in Paradise blog, which this week has reached the letter V. I also offer it as part of the Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott at her Pattinase blog.
“Every novel he has ever written is a marvel of plotting. He is the Swiss watchmaker of the suspense novel; in terms of plot, he makes what the rest of us do look like those five-dollar watches you can buy in the discount drugstores” – Stephen King in Danse Macabre (1981)
On top of being a best-selling novelist, Levin was also a popular playwright. No Time For Sergeants (1956) was a smash Broadway hit that made a star of the late Andy Griffith (who then repeated his success in the role for TV and the cinema) while Critic’s Choice (1960) had a modest six-month run before being turned into a movie starring Bob Hope; more controversial was the euthanasia drama Doctor Cook’s Garden (1967), which had a turbulent journey to its brief run (as detailed by William Goldman in his book The Season) and which was later filmed for television with Bing Crosby; and then of course there was his hugely popular Deathtrap (1978), still the longest running mystery in the history of Broadway. In between these last two came the less well-known Veronica’s Room, which is perhaps less surprising given that it was a flop in 1973 and never been filmed either (not hard to understand either given that it really is all set in the eponymous room). It has however had a long-life in smaller productions in a revised version. Here’s the blurb:
Students Susan and Larry find themselves as guests enticed to the Brabissant mansion by its caretakers, the lonely Mackeys. Struck by Susan’s strong resemblance to Veronica Brabissant, the long-dead daughter of the family for whom they work, the older couple gradually convince her to impersonate Veronica briefly to solace the only living Brabissant, her addled sister who believes Veronica alive.
Once dressed in Veronica’s clothes, Susan finds herself locked in the role and locked in Veronica’s room.
Susan and Larry are only on their second date but he is already starting to behave in a protective manner – he immediately thinks that the Mackeys may be up to something, perhaps after a family inheritance. Susan is however kinder and more trusting and wants to help. She’s also liberated and darn it, doesn’t even wear a bra, so also rejects Larry’s concerns to prove her independence. She thus changes into Veronica’s clothes, told that the poor girl died of TB decades earlier – but her sister Cecilia (‘Cissie’), now dying of cancer, has mentally regressed to childhood and believes her to be still alive. Susan is briefed on what to say and the Mackeys, with their charm and Irish brogues, seem merely sentimental. Larry gets taken downstairs for a shot of whiskey and Susan prepares to briefly pretend to be Veronica and help Cissie get her mind at rest. The door to the room is closed – and then, ominously, locked. And this is where everything changes for, like Deathtrap, this is a two-act thriller with a game-changing twist in the middle because when the door re-opens, everyone starts treating Susan as if she really were Veronica after all. And when she protests to the contrary, things get really ugly. It seems that this girl has something of a history and the bars on the windows to her room are not there just for decoration … and everyone insists that it’s 1935 instead of 1973!
“That’s the way they talk in 1973 … Sort of makes you want to die in ’72, doesn’t it?”
So what is going on – is this a time travel fantasy in the style of The Twilight Zone? An elaborate prank? Does Susan even exist or was she merely a projection in Veronica’s sick mind? Or is an even darker and more sinister game being played – is anyone in fact telling the truth here? These are some of the avenues explored in the second act, all of which is handled with Levin’s customary irony and invention. It also manages not to fall prey to what I sometimes think of as the ‘hot dog syndrome’ with stage mysteries – to wit, they tend to repeat on you. The classic example is Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth, which after a wonderfully clever first act ends with an ultra dramatic curtain, then flips the balance of the characters and in the second half essentially starts the same story all over again from a slightly different point of view. Levin’s Deathtrap did this too, turning the earlier MacGuffin of a script for a new mystery play into the actual dramatic crux. Dial M For Murder by Frederick Knott is actually one of the few postwar stage thrillers I can think of that don’t suffer too much from the Ouroboros tendency of having endlessly cyclical stories going round and round in repeating circles. In Veronica’s Room this is almost entirely dodged with just a hint of this tendency but thankfully reserved just for an ironic coda, so right away Levin gets brownie points for that too.
“You said that I looked like Veronica. We came back here to look at a picture of her. Does any of this ring a bell? Does any of this penetrate the miasma?”
It would be ruinous to say any more but this is a play with a pretty unrelenting pace capped by shocking climax with a couple more small twists of the knife to follow. As with Deathtrap, there is a certain disconnect in terms of the small cast of characters (there are barely more than have a dozen roles), none of which prove to be very sympathetic, which is a bit of a shame really and does hurt it somewhat. But if you are looking for shocks and surprises, this brief drama has plenty to offer none the less.
Thank you again to Martin Edwards for drawing my attention to this play.