VERONICA’S ROOM (1973) by Ira Levin

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 half 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.

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

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34 Responses to VERONICA’S ROOM (1973) by Ira Levin

  1. Colin says:

    I’m only familiar with Levin through his movie credits, and excellent credits they are. This sounds like a fascinating piece of drama though.
    BTW, I love that phrase “Hot Dog Syndrome” – I going to have to remember it and try to use it, with your permission of course, whenever the occasion arises.

    • The phrase that, ahem, just keeps on giving! Cheers Colin – I didn’t even know this play existed until about a month ago and I think it is pretty obscure, though there seem to have been lots of small productions all over (all the images are from these, including one set for next year). It’s definitely worth a read – a bit cold blooded maybe, but that’s true of Levin’s work in general I find. With the main exception of Sliver and the botched Nicole Kidman version of Stepford, I think all the movie adaptations have been pretty decent, even the remake of A Kiss Before Dying, though it suffered from some drastic ppost-production tampering that unfortunately becomes very noticeable at the climax. Trouble is, the big twist of that book is very, very hard to replicate on film.

      • Colin says:

        You’re right, there is a coldness to his work – at least what I’ve seen of it.
        I forgot about Sliver, a dreadful piece of trash filmmaking.
        You know, I thought I was the only person who liked the remake of A Kiss Before Dying. I mean I like the original, but I had no problem with the update at all.

        • That probably is about two of us then! I liked Sean Young in the dual role and Dillon is pretty good casting. Itis a shame they mucked about with it – bits of the original climax in the foundry, closer to that found in the book, are visible in the trailer actually:

          • Colin says:

            Generally, I’m not a huge fan of remakes, as you know, but I thought this had a certain style. I agree too that Young and Dillon were good casting choices and performed well.

          • It probably helps that this is less of a remake and nore of another adaptation of the book, whih somehow always seems a lot more artistically credible )or even creditable in fact …). Having said that, I enjoy Broken Lance and House of Strangers for instance equally if differently (and the references to King Lear don’t really bear that much scrutiny anyway). I do like the later Kiss as a dark reflection of consumerist America in the style of Ellis’ American Psycho, though I have no idea if that was in James Dearden’s mind at the time …

          • Colin says:

            Agreed; offering nothing new is a redundant exercise. I think House of Strangers and Broken Lance both succeed in standing on their own two feet partly by shifting genre. Another example of that phenomenon would be Raoul Walsh’s two versions of the same story – High Sierra & Colorado Territory. I think in this case the latter, the remake, is the better movie.

          • Actually never seen the Joel McRea remake (the Burnett novel was then remade in the 50s by Stuart Heisler as I DIED A THOUSAND TIMES, right? Warners really did do a lot of remakes didn’t they …)

          • Colin says:

            Yes Heisler made yet another version with Jack Palance and Shelley Winters.
            I strongly recommend Walsh’s own remake with McCrea and Virginia Mayo though.

          • Thanks for that Colin. Incidentally, shall be posting my review of Two O’Clock Courage soon – the PQ of the Montparnasse edition is surprisingly good.

          • Colin says:

            Looking forward to it!

          • Thanks again for the suggestion – I’ve also ordered the original 1934 novel so hope to run a review of that to, shortly …

  2. neer says:

    This gives me the creeps. Thanks for reviewing it. I have read a few of Levin’s novels but not his plays. I really want to read this.

    • Thanks Neer – this was a very nice surprise. If you’ve seen the movie adaptation of Deathtrap then you’ll have a sense of what kind of play it is though they have nothing in common in terms of plot – the same is true of Dr Cook’s Garden, another undervalued play (you can order the text here), more straightforward but well worth rediscovering. You can catch the TV-Movie adaptation on YouTube – I shan;t link as it is clearly posted illegally, but it’s easy to find. It starred Bing Crosby in his last dramatic role.

  3. TracyK says:

    Again you have profiled a piece of work that I had no knowledge of. This is intriguing. I had never heard of this play (nor had my husband, who has much more knowledge in that area). I agree with Neer, it sounds creepy. I had been wanting to read some of his books. This play would also be a good choice.

    • Thanks TracyK – Levin’s books are all a bit creepy probably (now that you guys mention it) but that’s OK when it is so well done – A Kiss Before Dying in particular remains a classic novel of psychological suspense with its best twist not at the end but right in the middle.

  4. I’ve been a fan of Ira Levin’s novels, but I’m unfamiliar with his plays. Your fine review has tweaked my interest! I’ll have to look into these intriguing dramas.

  5. John says:

    I read this as a teenager and it still sticks in my mind as one of those taboo “sick” plays. Amazingly, it was a staple of community theaters when I was growing up. The audiences were almost always revolted. Talk of this play always brings ups memories of other imprisonment movies like Die, Die! My Darling and You’ll Like My Mother each of which is “sick” in its own way, but nothing like Veronica’s Room. For some reason I also always think of the extremely creepy and little known movie The Mad Room with Stella Stevens though it really has nothing in common with Levin’s play. But that’s just my associational way of thinking. I’m surprised some enterprising thriller movie producer hasn’t jumped on Veronica’s Room. It can still shock the pants of a 21st century audience, I think. Maybe it’s forbidden for sale to the movies.

    BTW – People ought to be aware that the big secret of the plot has been exposed on several websites so I recommend not Googling anything about the play if you plan to read it and don’t want it ruined.

    • That’s an excellent point John (as always) – in my desire not to give too much away, I probably could have mentioned that some might consider it a bit ‘controversial’ … is sick the right word though? Not sure – I mean, people get killed in practically every post on this blog … But seriously, the only person I can think of who could make a good film of such a claustrophobic property is probably Polanski, who one imagines would never ever want to come close to it given the subject matter at hand.

      • John says:

        That’s why I put sick in quotes. I guess I’m using it in the 70s slang way since that’s how it was described to me and why as a teenager I sought out the play to read. I’ve never seen it performed, but read reviews of it and letters to the editor in my hometown paper when there was an uproar over a production. Admittedly in the 70s depending on who was using the term, “sick” described everything from distasteful or vulgar behavior (older generation) to the outright shocking and disgusting (younger generation and maybe older as well) which is I how I meant it.

        • I understood completely what you meant John and you are absolutely right to use it that way – the play’s subtext is very much after all that clash between perceptions of an older and safer pre-war era and the dissolute post flower power generation that followed and it is certainly how the term would have been used and understood by the characters.

  6. Sergio – This is a play that I hadn’t heard of either until Martin’s review. You’ve done an excellent job of reviewing it and I like that you’ve chosen something not-so-well-known. It does seem to have Levin’s characteristic talent of surprise and irony; you’ve convinced me to read it.

    • Thanks Margot – I hope you find it of interest. Following on from John’s earlier comment on my post, I am a bit worried that I should have made it cleaerer that the cntent in the second half is pretty dark and is clearly meant to shock audiences. To a certain extent Levin always dealt with controversial themes such as euthenasia, satanism and eugenics but in the context of a stage thriller this is fairly strong stuff. consider yourself, advised? I’d love to know what you make of it …

  7. Hi Sergio, it’s funny you should post a review of Ira Levin’s play. I have been meaning to read some of his famous novels you mentioned above and which have been adapted to film. I know that he was a thriller writer and dabbled (don’t know if that’s the right word) in horror with ROSEMARY’S BABY. I saw the Polanski’s film adaptation and found it pretty scary. And, of course, I have always been an admirer of John Cassavetes and his work. Other than that I’m not familiar with Levin’s novels or his plays but your review has put me wise to a writer and playwright I ought to start reading. Many thanks, Sergio.

    • The movie version of Rosemary’s Baby is quite remarkably faithful to the novel, which is the closest Levin came to out and out horror I suppose. None of the movie version of The Stepford Wives, which is more of a social satire with SF trimmings, are as close though the ending of the 1974 movie packs a real wallop; The Boys From Brazil, book and film, are closer to a Robert Ludlum thriller like The Holcroft Covenant (except much better).

  8. Deb says:

    I wonder if I’m the only one who sees similarities between Veronica’s Room ( which I’ve read but never seen performed) and Ian McEwan’s (to me) extremely nihilistic novel, The Comfort of Strangers, in that both concern older couples who befriend younger couples but as soon as they are behind closed doors, ominous things begin to happen.

    While I think A Kiss Before Dying has one of the great twists in all of mystery, some of Levin’s other work, like this play and The Stepford Wives, seem to confirm a 1970s assessment that Levin had a mysogynistic streak.

    • Hi Deb – it does have a certain similarity to the McEwan I grant you, in the same way that they both resemble Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? without the gay subtext. The Stepford Wives I would argue is a work that deals expressly with the fear of women that some men suffer from; so yes, its express subject is misogyny, but to actually call it misogynistic would be, in my view, quite wrong (even under the recently revised ‘Julia Gillard’ definitions). Levin knew that he was being contentious when they book came out of course in the early 70s – remarkable how little some things have changed. One of the aspects of the play that makes that interesting is the fact that as much time has now passed since its Broadway debut as the ‘present day’ first Act and the ‘flashback’ of the second Act …

      • John says:

        Levin was living in Westport, Connecticut at the time he wrote THE STEPFORD WIVES and more than anything his writing of that novel was a reaction to the way people behaved in that very country club like town. I grew up in Ridgefield, CT only a short drive to the northwest of Westport. I know very well what Fairfield County towns in Connecticut were like in the late 70s and the satiric elements in Levin’s book have more than a ring of truth to them. Some of those women were truly spooky in their devotion to their homes and husbands. You can find interviews in local newspapers from the 70s where Levin tries to laugh off his reactions to Connecticut people and their 70s lifestyle, but there’s a lot of dark cynicism underneath his joking. DEATHTRAP touches on similar views of Connecticut people – the obsession with antique filled homes, the fair weather friends, the barely veiled snobbery. I don’t think the movie version has it as much as the original play.

        • Fascinating stuff John. The movie of Deathtrap is perfectly OK but the first Stepford Wives adaptation (originally by William Goldman but re-written in part by Bryan Forbes) probably deserves more kudos for its more clearly developed sense of satire. Did you know Brian de Palma was first choice to direct but Goldman disagreed? If you look at the counter-culture films De Palma had been making at that time, as well as his horror/Hitchcock pastiches, he would have been ideal. Forbes I’m a fan of but has a totally alien sensibility to the world being presented in the film, which means he gets only the outsider point of view right, which is only part of the equation. Thanks so much for the terrific talkback on this John, greatly appreciated.

  9. Yvette says:

    I didn’t even realize I was familiar with so much of Ira Levin’s work, Sergio. However, I’d never heard of this play that you make sound so enticing. Sounds perfect for a small theater group. I haven’t read a play in ages, but maybe this is the one that will break the ice. :)

    I do remember bringing my young daughter and her friend to see DEATHTRAP on Broadway. At one point in the play we literally jumped out of our seats. Fun.

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