A novel idea falls short in execution
By Nelson Pressley
Friday, June 8, 2012
If you need a tough guy cut from the classic mold, Marty Lodge will do. His rasp has a hint of shrapnel in it, and his cool demeanor suggests a man who can manage whatever goes bump in the night.
That’s what you want at the cold heart of “Double Indemnity,” the terse crime novel by James M. Cain that became a cornerstone of film noir in 1944. In the rest of director Eleanor Holdridge’s bold but puzzling production at Round House Theatre, though, the hard-boiled “Double Indemnity” isn’t nearly so at ease.
Round House’s angle in recent years has been literary works, a niche that may shift as Ryan Rilette takes the reins from producing artistic director Blake Robison (who is leaving the Bethesda troupe to run Cincinnati’s Playhouse in the Park). “Indemnity” won’t mark the high point of Robison’s watch; Lodge’s world-weary turn, Nancy Schertler’s brilliantly dark lighting scheme and Matthew M. Nielson’s sinister sound and compositions are about all that ring true.
The book and the movie are different animals -- Raymond Chandler wrote the screen adaptation with director Billy Wilder -- but both focus on the poisonous plot between a savvy insurance salesman and a femme fatale. All that this foxy dame has to do is innocently ask, while her husband is out, whether this smooth-talking salesman happens to handle accident insurance. One rough kiss later, a murder plot’s afoot.
In Wilder’s picture, the relationship between Walter Huff (Fred MacMurray’s salesman, named Walter Neff in the movie) and Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson, as a supervisor with a bloodhound’s nose for fraud) turned into one of those beautiful friendships Humphrey Bogart once suggested to Claude Rains. (“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”) As adapted by David Pichette and R. Hamilton Wright, the play sticks closer to the book than to the movie, so Keyes has less of that sentimental color. But that doesn’t fully explain why Todd Scofield’s Keyes is such a loud office drone, not an intriguingly practiced judge of human nature’s baser instincts.
More peculiar is Celeste Ciulla’s Phyllis, the beauty who hooks Huff with her good looks and bad ideas. The performance needs a rougher edge; Ciulla is lovely and vocally clear and inexplicably radiant, closer to the merry Beatrice in “Much Ado About Nothing” than to a rotten dame wallowing in sex and violence.
The show doesn’t back away from being showy, which quickly seems at odds with the story’s guts. When Phyllis describes her infatuation with death, the speech sails weirdly over the top -- Ciulla downstage, smile bright and eyes ablaze, giant shadows looming behind. It’s so absurdly big you just about expect a number from “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”
Aside from the gruff and steady Lodge, whose no-frills method as Huff is right in touch with Cain, there’s precious little knowingness in the acting. Daniel Conway’s black-and-white projections lend cinematic atmosphere, but it seems like the five-person cast and the stagehands push a lot of furniture on and offstage trying to keep up with the adaptation’s hurtling scene changes.
At bottom, there’s no real feel for genre or for the bold characterizations and human crackups that make Cain’s story so durable. Why this gripping book and landmark movie had to be converted into any kind of stage project at all -- that’s a mystery.