by Milton W. Hamlin -
SGN A&E Writer
Through November 20
Expectations have been high all season for ACT's stage adaptation of James M. Cain's classic tale of double dealing and double crossing. The world premiere of Double Indemnity ends ACT's mainstage 2011 season with performances through November 20, opening in time for Halloween and ending just before Thanksgiving. The show - disappointing overall, but not a real turkey - is a co-production with the San Jose Repertory Theatre, where it will move after its Seattle run.
The stage adaptation of the 1930s novel, based on a true crime story from the 1920s, was written by two of Seattle's favorite actors: David Pichette and R. Hamilton Wright. Interestingly, neither appear in the stage version. The novel is best known from the film-noir classic of the same name directed with stylish 1940s sleekness by Billy Wilder, whose screen adaptation changes many major plot points, including the novel's original ending. The show had 'hit' written all over it from the beginning, but, alas, the final results are only so-so.
First the good news: There's an old adage in stage criticism that 'the sets alone are worth the price of admission,' or 'the costumes,' or 'the performances.' Here the technical work is first-class but all of those elements - sets, costumes, lighting, sound - often seem designed for a different show. It's hard to stage a death from a train on stage - all the king's horses and all the king's lighting effects don't always add up to the realism, or stylized realism, needed to make that really work. The imagination of the reader is a plus for the novel, the visuals of cinema a necessary element for the film viewer.
The ACT set seems to be a green malachite mausoleum with numerous trap doors and special openings. In itself, it is simply stunning. It opens, it closes, it revolves, it disappears. While using an imposing tomb of marble or malachite seems fitting on paper, in reality, it calls attention to itself and simply overwhelms the action. One friend at intermission had only one question about the play: 'How much do you think that cost?' He was, alas, not involved in the highly charged plot complications, just stunned by the physical realization of the set designer.
Most of the costumes, the overall lighting, and the sound design are full successes. Costume quibbles: The women's stockings have no seams - a basic element of period costuming for the 1930s and '40s. In the bedroom seduction scenes, the leading lady's 'underpinnings' seem to anticipate the 1950s bullet bras more than the show's softer era. Several of the supporting roles have such perfect costumes - a real strength of this show - so it seems strange that the leading lady is in a time warp.
The stage adaptation seems to want to play it both ways: to make fun of the arch dialog of the over-the-top melodrama and also to play it straight. The opening-night audience roared with laughter at many of the most serious lines. Wright and Pichette keep the novel's first-person narrative, from the duped insurance salesman's point of view, and that works well most of the time. The show's opening line, 'The bleeding has started again,' hooks the viewer and allows the flashback frame of the sordid tale to make theatrical sense. The play's final moment, though, is almost impossible to narrate and visually it moves so quickly that some first-night audience members - especially, it seems, those seated at the far sides of the thrust stage - were uncertain as to what had happened.
The ACT cast of five is, strangely, anchored by the three supporting actors who play diverse types - and 'types' they are. Director Kurt Beattie, ACT's artistic director, makes sure that the actors create specific characters. They use different walks, different voices, different wigs, and different costumes, of course. Jessica Martin (a knockout as the sexy, suspicious stepdaughter and even better as the stuffy secretary), Mark Anderson Phillips, and Richard Ziman provide solid support in all scenes and keep the level of performance at the top.
John Bogar, a Seattle-based actor making his ACT debut, and Carrie Paff, a Bay Area actress who is also making her ACT debut, tackle the main roles: Phyllis, the seductive second wife with plans to kill her husband for a double indemnity insurance payoff, and Walter Huff, the not-very-bright insurance salesman. (In co-productions, it is often customary to cast actors from both theatrical and geographical areas - thus Seattle's Bogar and San Francisco's Paff. Same with the supporting trio - two from Seattle, one from San Jose.) While each has some interesting moments, there is very little chemistry between Bogar and Paff. No scenes approaches the level of sexiness the sordid tale requires. The fault could be in the script, which obviously needs work before moving to San Jose. The fault could be in the direction - both actors are new to ACT, and, presumably, new to director Beattie. The fault could be in the casting - perhaps it is just impossible for the two to project the needed level of sensual statement the show requires. There's nothing really wrong with their performances; the two simply fail to deliver and, therefore, there is an emotional hole at the middle of the show.
Audiences who see the show later in the run could easily find that a sizzling relationship has developed between the characters. On opening night, it was simply a cipher. Serious Seattle theatergoers will be anxious to read San Jose reviews in the future and see if the show develops an overall smoothness that it obviously needs. Interestingly, the opening-night ACT crowd did not give the show a standing ovation - in clap-happy Seattle where opening-night standing ovations are the norm, that alone says something.
ACT's original mission as A Contemporary Theatre is fulfilled by a new stage mounting of a classic novel and beloved film. Season subscribers will find much to enjoy. The show should have and could have been better.
ACT offers various discounts for seniors and students as well as pay-what-you-will tickets (based on availability) every day. Complete details and ticket reservations at (206) 292-7676 or www.acttheatre.org. Various special events - post-play discussions, tastings, an audio-described performance on November 19 - add interest to the November performance schedule of evening and matinee shows. Ask for details.
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