You can’t fault the timing. Intentional or not, this production can’t help but benefit from the coat-tails ride provided by the recent release of the Netflix series, Ripley.

Joanna Murray-Smith’s two-hander zooms in on Ripley’s creator, the American novelist Patricia Highsmith. It’s the early 1990s, and Highsmith (Toni Scanlan), living in self-exile in Switzerland for a decade or more, has all but quit writing. She’s also been diagnosed with cancer.

Laurence Boxhall and Toni Scanlan in Switzerland. Photo © Brett Boardman

The play begins with an unwelcome visitor from New York, Edward Ridgeway (Laurence Boxhall), an emissary from Highsmith’s New York publisher.

He’s late for his appointment (bad start; Highsmith is a stickler), star-struck and nervous. Among other things, this author has a reputation as a gorgon. Edward’s predecessor, he tells her, is still in recovery after his encounter with Highsmith some months ago (which may have involved a hunting knife).

Ridgeway’s mission is to get Highsmith back on track and persuade her to pen one more Ripley novel. He knows and admires her work and will do whatever it takes – even if it means generating plot lines.

Switzerland is an appealing tussle of temperaments and ideas, alternately tense and humorous, and an expertly calibrated piece of playwriting. The backstory of Highsmith’s life and the books that made her famous (including Strangers on a Train and the five Ripley novels) are woven in without seeming intrusive. The play’s ideas about the ways in which literary characters can assume lives beyond that of their creators are winningly demonstrated.

This production feels like a chamber version of the play debuted on a grand scale by the Sydney Theatre Company at the Sydney Opera House in 2014. Played with a more domestic angle, it feels warmer and funnier, too. The set is very effective (a bunker-meets-MCM vibe, courtesy Veronique Benett) and under Shaun Rennie’s direction, the play feels light on its feet and the verbal jousting springy.

Toni Scanlan and Laurence Boxhall in Switzerland. Photo © Brett Boardman

After Highsmith died in 1995, her publisher Otto Penzler described his client thus: “[She] was a mean, cruel, hard, unlovable, unloving human being … I could never penetrate how any human being could be that relentlessly ugly.”

Scanlan’s portrayal seems somewhat warmer and more attractive than that, but she’s entirely commanding as Highsmith and adept at revealing what lies beneath her hard shell of hostility and prejudice. Boxhall is an excellent foil, and very adept when it comes to imparting the play’s darkly satisfying twist.

Switzerland plays at the Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli, North Sydney until 8 June.

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