Karl Miller shines as 'Talented Mr. Ripley' at Round House Theatre

The Bethesda theater opens its 2010-2011 season with the thriller starring Karl Miller.
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 17, 2010

Karl Miller is seriously creepy. And we can all be grateful for that.

The eerily magnetic actor is the black heart and twisted soul of Phyllis Nagy's supple stage adaptation of "The Talented Mr. Ripley," the thriller based on Patricia Highsmith's novel that is receiving an exemplary area premiere at Round House Theatre. Miller plays the outwardly mild, inwardly malevolent Tom Ripley, a social parasite with the scruples of an Iago, who spreads bad karma like acid rain over some unsuspecting American bons vivants in Italy.

It's wonderful casting. With a feline ease ruffled only by the faintest hints of smoldering resentment, Miller displays a countenance built for deception. And since the art of lying is at the top of the evening's agenda, the play gets better as the subterfuges become more baroque and Tom's marks ever more flummoxed.

That Miller is able to convey Tom's fey, slightly too practiced bonhomie gives him a leg up on Matt Damon, who in the same role in a luxe 1999 film adaptation of the novel came across a bit too all-American, too robust for a shadow of a man. In Miller's hands, Tom's evil accomplishments are that much more remarkable, because he's not the golden boy to whom other golden types might naturally be drawn.

Nagy's adaptation, initially staged in Britain, has a sort of sneaky power, the kind that doesn't reveal its dynamic impact all at once. It's not until the second act of director Blake Robison's smartly assembled production that the play's laconic rhythms begin to assert themselves and the breadth of Tom's monstrous behavior truly hits home.

So stay with the mechanics of the plot, and they'll likely pay off for you. "The Talented Mr. Ripley" is a high-end spine-tingler, and Robison lavishes on it the tasteful attention the story deserves. He and his set designer, the gifted Narelle Sissons, place the action on a ramp that stretches from one end of the vast Round House stage to the other, and use only a smattering of set pieces to evoke Tom's off-kilter universe. Framing the stage are a pair of giant paintings that allude at once to the idea of Tom as a kind of artist -- albeit one of the con variety -- and more specifically to the amoral thrust of Tom's life: One of the pictures is a copy of a painting by Gerard de Lairesse, "The Judgment of Midas."

The notion does present itself, in this version of "Ripley," that Tom is a cosmic punishment unleashed on those with more money than they know how to spend. His journey to Italy in the mid-1950s is made at the behest of the wealthy parents of Richard Greenleaf (Marcus Kyd), a young man whom Tom barely knows but whom the parents (John Lescault and Naomi Jacobson) believe he knows well, and who is leading an idle life in a town on the coast of Italy. That Tom is allergic to the truth is made plain early, in a scene in which he gives us and the elder Greenleafs a primer on the versatility of his one real talent.

The perception of Richard as a harmless ne'er-do-well -- Kyd plays him more sympathetically than did Jude Law in the Anthony Minghella movie -- usefully masks Tom's dark motives. Only Richard's school chum Freddie (Sasha Olinick) sees through the charade and, in confronting Tom about inconsistencies in his story, pays dearly. Even Richard's girlfriend, Marge (Kaytie Morris), fails to bring him down, expressing her misgivings only fleetingly.

As a result of the vicarious pleasure of being inside the scam, we can't really hate Tom. On the contrary, Nagy invites us to admire his pathological assault, his ability to outwit people with far more power or money. An Italian police inspector with less than flawless antennae proves, in a well-played scene, to be no match for Tom. Miller's resourceful portrayal helps, too, in another evocative interlude, in which the actor gives a chilling account of Tom's single-mindedness, practicing Richard's signature on a dressing mirror, ghoulishly etching the letters of his name in lipstick.

Morris, Kyd and Olinick all fare excellently as Tom's dupes and victims. While Lescault is across the board solid, Jacobson is better as Tom's Aunt Dottie than as Mrs. Greenleaf; she's a tad too loud for a buttoned-up '50s society matron. The fights, especially a brutal murder in Act 2, are staged with convincing accuracy by Casey Kaleba.

Much of the time, however, it's Miller who carries the evening. Playgoers may recall his performance in 2005 as a teenager planning a shooting rampage in "columbinus" and, more recently, as an unhinged terrorist in "The Lieutenant of Inishmore." Though he's played gentler roles over the years, a truth is reaffirmed with his work in "Ripley": The guy's got acting chops to die for.

The Talented Mr. Ripley

adapted from the Patricia Highsmith novel by Phyllis Nagy. Directed by Blake Robison. Costumes, Kate Turner-Walker; lighting, Kenton Yeager; composer and sound design, Matthew M. Nielson; dance consultant, Kelly Mayfield. With Billy Finn. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Through Sept. 26 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East West Hwy., Bethesda. Call 240-644-1100 or visit

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