Double Indemnity | The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

doubleindemnity 75Lights mounted low to cast tall, imposing shadows and dramatic shafts of illumination, are characteristic of film noir.

 

 

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Featuring: Gardner Reed as Phyllis Nirlinger. ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

The mood is set when you walk into the room. As you find your seat and settle in, fog swirls in the darkness around a façade representing a mission-style house in 1930s Los Angeles. There are angles, intricate wrought iron window ornamentation, and a bit of tile roof. If something wicked is going to come, this is the way.

But we don’t realize yet that this set is the real star of the show. Double Indemnity takes place in and around 29 different interior and exterior locations, and while that was no big deal for the movie to pull off, it’s a huge accomplishment for Paul Shortt to figure out a way to make the changes before our eyes without being slow or intrusive—and he does. We are in a house, an apartment, an office, a train, an oil field, a couple of cars, and even a ship, and it all appears and disappears in twists and turns that are graceful and quiet. Simple furniture (deco for the house; classic Sam Spade for the apartment) defines the living spaces; a desk, chair and cabinet all in gray make up the office; and James Sale’s intricate and inventive lighting design takes care of the rest.

Director Michael Evan Haney has his actors move in concert with the turntables and whatever other devices are at work out of our sight, and there are no prop people scurrying about. We even begin to imagine props that aren’t actually there, such as telephone conversations with no actual phone. Those lights, which are mounted low to cast tall, imposing shadows and dramatic shafts of illumination (think of the poster for The Thin Man) are characteristic of film noir. David Kay Mickelson’s mostly excellent costuming enhances the dramatic palette. Put them all together, and it’s a visual feast in black, white, and gray, and I’m sure stage manager Champe Leary and her assistant, Tony Dearing, were kept busy calling the cues. Haney and Shortt are frequent collaborators in Cincinnati Playhouse productions, the Rep’s sister theater, as well as having considerable experience staging their shows here.

David Christopher Wells is Walter Huff, everyman insurance salesman, who rings a doorbell on a routine call one ordinary afternoon and meets his destiny. She is Phyllis Nirlinger (Gardner Reed), second and much younger wife of Herbert (Kevin Cutts). Walter is there to speak to Mr. Nirlinger about renewing his auto insurance, and Phyllis invites Walter in to talk about her husband’s coverage. He’s at work and it’s the maid’s day off, so the two begin flirting over tea. Phyllis pulls an Angelina Jolie move when she crosses her legs, covered in a drab housedress to this point, and bares her gorgeous gam. Walter is officially toast.

Phyllis coyly asks about accident insurance, since her husband’s occupation is “dangerous,” and she “worries about him so,” and without missing a beat, Walter lets her know that he can set that up. He can fix it so there’s a double indemnity rider, too, one that pays out twice as much if the insured party dies in a train accident (that stipulation impresses clients, and the company has made sure that fatal accidents on trains are rare). She invites him to return when her husband, Herbert, is home, and Walter suggests “someone else” be there, as well, to witness the proceedings because they’re going to pull a fast one. When he arrives the following evening, he’s not pleased to find Lola (Joy Farmer-Clary) present, Phyllis’s 19-year-old stepdaughter, with whom she has a tense relationship, but Herbert does exactly what Walter wants him to, and inadvertently seals his own fate.

This is pretty much how Billy Wilder’s iconic film goes up to this point, minus the ankle bracelet that introduces us to Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis descending the staircase the first time she meets Fred MacMurray (Walter) who, as in the play, is telling the story in flashback. It’s not a spoiler to say that in the first few minutes, we learn exactly what happened to Herbert and how it all played out. This story is not about the “what” but the “how.” If you haven’t read the novel, Walter and Phyllis’s story in the play has some significant differences after the murder in the stage version. Joseph Breen, Hollywood’s “morals czar,” and his Hays Office set up to monitor films for “decency” demanded a solid depiction of justice on screen in 1943. The novel was optioned for seven years before someone figured out how to make it work within the acceptable moral parameters, considering the leading characters are amoral and motivated by lust. The play tells the story as James M. Cain wrote it in his 1943 roman noir in which the lovers are just a couple of walking deadly sins. (Note: If you have read the book, Phyllis’ last name is “Nirdlinger”; I’m not sure why this change was made, nor why Huff and Nirlinger are Neff and Dietrichson in the film.)

It looks like the plot to whack Herbert might actually work, but there are a couple of insurmountable roadblocks, the most significant of which is Walter’s boss, Keyes. (His first name, “Barton,” is not used.) He’s another classic noir type, sloppy to Walter’s natty, bellicose to Walter’s civility, and smart as they come. He and the boss’s son, Norton (Eddie Boroevich), are talking about the murder, and we see the old pro teaching the Harvard heir, whom he disdains, some home truths. He’s a bulldog, and he’s also Walter’s friend. Lola also becomes an unexpected distraction to Walter, as he learns Phyllis has hooked up with Lola’s boyfriend, the appropriately ethnically named “Nino Sachetti” (Boroevich), and he cares for Lola in a big-brother kind of way. Walter is beginning to feel pretty stupid himself, ’cause the trampy dame obviously took him for a ride. There is one oddity about Sachetti: Lola borrows money from Walter so Nino can “finish his dissertation.” When we learn he actually does, it seems out of character.

Boroevich also plays “Jackson,” an inconvenient fellow train passenger, and he is outstanding in all three parts, as is Farmer-Clary who conveys an earnest sexiness. McGuinness is an excellent Keyes, Cutts is fine in his small role, and Wells is as good as he can be under the circumstances. There are two points that stand out as detracting from the piece, the lesser of which is that Reed seems miscast: She’s too soft. Phyllis talks about her attraction to death, but in Reed’s interpretation via Haney, it seems more like “easeful death,” rather than the bloody mess her one flash of red (awkwardly foreshadowed) would indicate. Of course, the gown may be scarlet, but the prose is decidedly purple at this point, so it’s a tough part for any actor.  

I may also be overly influenced by the memory of Stanwyck, who could have made Hitler say “Uncle” if she wanted to, but I just don’t get Walter’s sudden need to possess this Phyllis. Oh, sure, he talks about the time he’s spent dwelling on the dark side in his own imagination and such, but to credibly bring that out, there needs to be more of a palpable attraction between the two. Maybe it’s because she’s wearing flats. Femmes fatale wear heels, except it’s a lot easier to make a dame look shorter when you have cameras. Seriously, chemistry is personal and hard to describe, so you should decide about Phyllis yourself. I am aware I’m reviewing the play, not the movie, but comparisons are inevitable in cases like this because the noir format with its self-referential, expressionistic style translates across the media.

The second and more significant “circumstance” is that the whole idea is just preposterous. We have gone well past the period where this style could be taken seriously, as Steve Martin reminded us in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid 30 years ago. Wells’ timing of monosyllabic responses indicates that the humor must not be inadvertent; in fact, he sounds like Sgt. Joe Friday. But everyone who is writing about the story, from Art Silverblatt’s analysis of the movie to the director’s notes to the artistic director’s letter, sound like none of them think of this as actual comedy derived from playing it straight. Steven Woolf’s program remarks do call it “great fun,” but I’m not sure how we’re meant to take that, and David Pichette and R. Hamilton Wright’s script doesn’t clear it up. To be fair, even the movie sounds artificial now, conditioned as audiences were by the cinema revolution of the 1970s; thus it, too, is more a curiosity than a classic in the 21st century, so I don’t know why anyone thought an adaptation for the theater would be a good idea in the first place.

Should you see it? Sure. It’s visually as impressive a show as I’ve seen at the Rep, and it is mostly entertaining in a sketch-comedy sort of way. The audience laughed a lot. If you go in expecting an homage to a classic noir that you remember as being erotic as was allowed back in the day and a shocking examination of the dark side of human nature, then you’ll be disappointed. If you feel like a few laughs at a style that post-modern directors discarded decades ago, then you’ll have a good time. | Andrea Braun

Double Indemnity is at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis through April 7, 2013. You may visit www.repstl.org.

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