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Tuesday, 19 March 2013 14:18

An old classic adapted for the stage

Written by Meghan McEnery
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The Details

(L to R): Gardner Reed as Phyllis Nirlinger and David Christopher Wells as Walter Huff
(L to R): Gardner Reed as Phyllis Nirlinger and David Christopher Wells as Walter Huff repstl.org / ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

The mood is set for "Double Indemnity" the minute you walk into the theater. Small windows let in rays of eerie white sunlight. A smoky haze swirls above the stage. The terra cotta roof and plastered walls paired with streaks of sunlight makes it unclear as to whether the scene is set inside or outside, during night or day.

The play begins in typical film noir fashion. Walter Huff is on the back of a cruise ship headed towards Mexico, watching sharks in the water below him. He gives a short monologue about how he ended up where he is now, and the play enters into memory.

Directed by Michael Evan Haney, the play feels just like a movie. It runs for an hour and a half without intermission and the black, white and gray color scheme is a subtle reminder of 1940's film. The rotating set allows flashbacks to fade in and out as Walter narrates his grim story. "Double Indemnity" follows all of the conventions of film noir--and although it is sometimes playful--it  never parodies the genre.

The play is an adaptation of James M. Cain's 1943 novel. Adapted two years ago for a  Seattle theatre by David Pichette and R. Hamilton Wright, this version of "Double Indemnity" rejects the famous Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler film and works directly from Cain's book. The play version sticks closer to the original text of the book, yet still strives to feel cinematic when produced onstage. "Double Indemnity" is the story of an insurance guy, Walter Huff (David Christopher Wells) who is good at heart but gets mixed up with the wrong woman--the married Phyllis Nirdlinger (Gardner Reed). Phyllis is obsessed with death and seduces Walter into helping her take out an insurance policy on her husband Herbert (Kevin Cutts) and then murdering him. Walter and Phyllis commit the perfect murder, but as he gets increasingly twisted up in Phyllis's world, Walter realizes that things were never what they seemed.

Cain's original novel was published seventy years ago, and both novel and film have clearly withstood the test of time. The play adaptation is fun to watch, but something seems to be missing in this adaptation. Maybe something that just can't be achieved when film noir's done onstage--some element of suspense that only happens when you read a detective novel alone on a rainy night, or maybe the grit and romance that only a cinematographer can achieve. On a stage, the whole thing seems tributary. Wells and Gardner nail the roles we all know so well (straight talking good guy gone bad, sexy femme fatale in a slinky dress); Paul Shortt's set design mimics film closely; the hazy lighting mutes the colors and gives the show the grainy feel of an old movie. There is nothing particularly fresh about this production of "Double Indemnity", except the novelty of it being on a stage. Despite all this, the play feels good to watch. As soon as the play starts, and you realize that it's taking itself seriously, it's easy to take it seriously as well. You know that certain kind of movie that you want to watch when you're sick on the couch with the flu?  "Double Indemnity" is that in play form. It's sucks you in without messing with your head. It's entertaining and interesting but not exhausting. It makes you think about human nature, but not too much for a Saturday matinee. I loved that about it once I accepted that it was what I was going to get. Don't go see this play expecting a mind-blowing new take on an old genre or the reincarnation of Fred MacMurry and Barbara Stanwyck. See it on a rainy night, have a drink or two in the lobby before the show, and spend an hour and a half living in a world where things are black and white, good and bad is obvious, and crime is easy to make sense of.

"Double Indemnity" continues at the Repertory Theater through April 7th. For more information, call 314-968-4925 or visit www.repstl.org.

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