Meanwhile, over at ACT, they premiered a new adaptation of James M. Cain’s classic pulp novel Double Indemnity, made famous by Billy Wilder’s 1944 film noir classic starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson. Adapted by two acclaimed veteran Seattle actors, David Pichette and R. Hamilton Wright with a love for the noir crime thrillers of the Thirties and Forties, it was one of my most anticipated plays of the fall…I’m a fan of both the original novel and the Wilder film about an insurance salesman who becomes involved with a femme fatale who needs some assistance in knocking off her husband.
And, ACT’s Double Indemnity was a huge…disappointment. Somewhere along the way, memos must have crossed at ACT. Part of the company decided they wanted to do a real, gritty noir thriller with moody lighting, and cool sets and alluring period costumes featuring tough men and even tougher women in some pretty nasty and grim situations. Meanwhile, a few folks at ACT decided that they were working on a noir parody that should be light and funny and camp….basically a Re-bar production but with a $75,000 budget and fewer drag queens.
Noir is not camp.
It doesn’t mean it can’t be played as camp, but nowhere in the press material for this play does it indicate that this is a “funny” production played for laughs. But, last Thursday’s opening night got LOTS of laughs and I’m still not convinced that they were intentional. There were times the actors looked a bit…surprised at some of the chuckles they were getting. Yet, there are times where the performances are so broad and winking, that it’s obvious that director Kurt Beattie has instructed his cast to play the roles in this manner. Again, nothing wrong with that, but this production has such a schizoid dynamic going on, that it frequently almost jumps the tracks (and, does jump the tracks at its horrendously staged conclusion.)
I blame most of it on the direction. As someone else pointed out to me, Mr. Beattie has been accused of “softening up” material before, most recently with last year’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore, turning that very dark play into something frivolous and fluffy for ACT’s subscriber base and that could also be the case here, with Double Indemnity. Noir IS difficult to stage, and to realistically portray; after all, noir is a style of FILM not theater, and it’s a 60 year old style at that. I think modern audiences sometimes watch old films and marvel at some of the extremely broad acting going on, but I think they miss the point, especially with Double Indemnity. The acting in the film, is very terse, clipped and not very broad….it’s pretty deadpan and grim and bitter in Noir Land especially when helmed by Billy Wilder. Mr. Beattie seems intent on playing everything for laughs with tongue firmly in cheek at all times. As a result, the play is unfocused and scattershot; it never seems to know what it wants to be.
But, the acting in ACT’s “Indemnity” is…pretty big with some exceptions. John Bogar stars as Walter Huff, the insurance agent who falls into the snare of vixen Phyllis Nirlinger (Carrie Paff) with Richard Ziman doing double duty as Keyes, Huff’s boss at the insurance company, and as Nirlinger, the intended victim in the murder scheme. Mr. Bogar has the appropriate “Everyman” quality to play Huff but I’m not sure he has the necessary sexual sneer to carry it off; the actor seems TOO nice and likable to become involved in such a plot (and it doesn’t help that physically he slightly resembles the comedic actor Ed Helms from The Office and The Hangover films.) But, Mr. Bogar consistently provided the LEAST camp/ham performance in this play; he played the role with the correct deadpan seriousness required of noir/pulp fiction.
Mr. Ziman was largely fine as well. His “Keyes” was a bit broad at times and a little too comedic on occasion, but his “Nirdlinger” was dead on and the actor very successfully made each character separate and unique. As for Mark Anderson Phillips and Jessica Martin who each played a trio of roles, both are excellent actors and nicely delineated each character they played, but they all went a bit over the top with their characterizations at times and played the roles with too much comedic vigor that sometimes resembled a sketch from “The Carol Burnett Show”. The audience seemed to like these “big” performances but they weren’t very appropriate to the alleged intended tone of the material.
MORE after the jump.
As for Carrie Paff’s Phyllis…I don’t know where to begin. Yes, Barbara Stanwyck has some very big shoes to fill, but Ms Paff’s performance just paddles around in them like a little girl playing with Momma’s shoes. Part of the problem with her performance can be blamed on both the direction, and the adaptation by the authors (more on that in a moment), but that doesn’t excuse the ham handedness of this performance which borders on drag burlesque. It was arch and hard, yet cloying and false all at the same time. I seldom get “mean” with actors (and, I don’t like to) but I really disliked this performance and I do think the authors/director have to shoulder a big chunk of the blame but Ms Paff could have toned down the camp. Ultimately, actors are the author of their own performance; they have the final say when they walk out on the stage every night to perform. Better choices could have been made by everyone involved.
And, I’m disappointed in the adaptation by the two actors involved, David Pichette and R. Hamilton Wright (both of whom are excellent actors). As far as I’m aware, Double Indemnity is not in the public domain so that means that the theatrical rights had to be obtained for this new adaptation and production and I don’t know if the writers had to work under any contractual agreements to not radically change the plot or characters of the novel, but I would be surprised if that was so…it’s an old novel. (And, note, despite the use of the cinematic word “noir”, this play is based on the original novel by James M. Cain, and not the film adaptation by Billy Wilder and novelist Raymond Chandler). And, as much as I admire and like the work of Mr. Cain, Double Indemnity isn’t a perfect novel and the ending in the book is far weaker than the ending in the film. Billy Wilder recognized the weakness of that ending and drastically improved on it, but Pichette and Wright are pretty faithful to the novel down to the hammy “Scarlett Woman” characterization of Phyllis and the very dumb final moments of the story (clunkily staged by Mr. Beattie). Unless they were contractually prevented from doing so, the playwrights could have, and should have made some changes…including early on in the play when seemingly after a ten minute meeting, Huff decides to risk it all to help Phyllis kill her husband. The film handled it well; in the play it’s unbelievable and clunky.
I disliked the adaptation, the directing and some of the acting but the design elements for Double Indemnity are strong with a clever, rotating set by Thomas Lynch; appropriate noir-esque lighting from Rick Paulsen; gorgeous period costumes by Annie Smart and Brendan Patrick Hogan’s gritty sound design all worthy of praise.
And, I should also note, the opening night crowd at Double Indemnity seemed to really enjoy the play. It was, after all, a very funny night of satirical camp and most of us over the age of 40 relish the memory of Carol Burnett, Harvey Korman and Vicki Lawrence basically doing the same thing at 10pm on a Saturday night with their versions of “Went With The Wind” and “Mildred Fierce”. But, I’m not sure that was the intent everyone at ACT had in mind when they produced this play.
Tags: Double Indemnity