Cigar and cigarette smoke. Booze. A gangster and a predatory femme fatale. In Chris Stezin's intriguing new play, "A Walk Across the Rooftops," currently being presented by the Washington Shakespeare Company, those images affectionately refer to film noir, the sub-genre of dark, brooding American movies of the 1940s and early 1950s.
Fortunately, "A Walk Across the Rooftops" is more than an homage to petty criminals and light slanting through dirty Venetian blinds. It is a contemporary play about 11 individuals, all of whom are trying to understand their lives. Although its themes are ancient -- brutality, justice, betrayal, revenge -- this is a play written for today, for a society acquainted with greed, murder and disillusionment in a modern idiom.
"A Walk Across the Rooftops" is a mystery, and part of its appeal is that the audience must figure out the nonlinear plot. Stezin introduces his characters as unrelated people, then lets strands of their histories unfold and intertwine. As relationships are revealed, meaningful patterns begin to appear.
The play takes place "now and then" in Harrisonburg, Va., and New York. The central character is Nick (Daniel Ladmirault), a hard-boiled loner propelled by rage at the murder of his father years earlier. That murder becomes a central event of the play, drawing into the maelstrom of Nick's life a mob boss, Defranco (Dave Wright); Defranco's daughter, Elizabeth (Elizabeth H. Richards); his business associate, Miller (Bruce Alan Rauscher); and Nick's buddy Ben (Wright again).
Stezin's style reflects the fragmentation and confusion of his characters' lives. He offers snippets of conversation, then jumps to an unrelated scene, then another. Like the directors of film noir, he flaunts the ambiguous. He uses flashbacks and asides, monologues and voice-overs to create a sense of nightmarish confusion and blur the line between reality and dream.
The WSC production keeps the visual style simple. Faz Besharatian and Mark A. Rhea have designed a two-tiered set full of appropriately jagged, angular shapes. The lighting design, by Dan Martin, uses pools of light to direct the audience's attention to various playing areas: a car, an office, a construction site, a rooftop. Tricia Craig and LB Hamilton's dark, almost monochromatic costumes establish the play neatly in the present and recent past.
One of the most effective elements of "A Walk Across the Rooftops" is Adam K. Hamilton's music. From the intense, menacing theme that establishes the tone of the play to a variety of electronic interludes, Hamilton makes imaginative choices that bolster Stezin's vision of a disorienting, percussive universe where there are no lullabies.
Unfortunately, director Hamilton doesn't maximize the best qualities of Stezin's unconventional script. "A Walk Across the Rooftops" clearly calls for a very unrealistic directorial style. Too often Hamilton's production slips into an easy naturalism, which undercuts the text. Especially when there are guns in hand, the action freezes into melodrama and the script is reduced to a crime saga. Although the themes of the play are massive, there are few moments when the emotional energy onstage is intense enough to do them justice.
One of those moments belongs to Richards as Elizabeth, whose cry for revenge for the death of her father hovers in the theater even after she is silent. Ladmirault does well in the difficult role of the cynical, disaffected Nick, neatly juggling humor with murderous intent.
Dave Wright is excellent in the roles of the likable Ben and the brutal Defranco. Rauscher convincingly portrays the smooth-talking Miller, and John Tweel is entertaining as his sardonic, resentful employee, Frank. As the idealistic Woman on the Rooftop, Patricia Howard provides a refreshing alternative to the pessimism below her.
At the end of "A Walk Across the Rooftops," Nick says, "There are no monsters -- just men and women." Or perhaps Stezin meant them to be metaphors for a society gone mad. Ultimately, the play doesn't clarify, condemn or forgive. It simply creates a gritty, shadowy world where ambiguity nests within ambiguity and you always need to watch your back.
A Walk Across the Rooftops, by Chris Stezin. Directed by LB Hamilton. With Carlos Bustamante, John Horn and Aimee Meher-Homji. A Washington Shakespeare Company production at the Clark Street Playhouse, 601 S. Clark St., Arlington, through Feb. 26. Call 703-418-4808.