BWW Reviews: Behind the Scenes Play BILLY & RAY Proves a Colorful Exploration
Everyone loves a good spicy story about Hollywood film-making especially when it involves a classic from the Golden Age like Double Indemnity, the beginning of film noir. The brilliant movie almost did not get made, due to the strictly enforced censorship codes that were in effect from the 30s to the 60s. Add to the issue of morality the fact that director Billy Wilder and screenwriter Raymond Chandler feuded intensely over how to write the screenplay. Mike Bencivenga's new play Billy & Ray currently playing at the Falcon Theatre relates truthfully their turbulent period of creativity. Boasting slick staging by director Garry Marshall and a stalwart ensemble of four, Billy & Ray, to quote a Wilder (Kevin Blake) phrase from the play, sparks and sparkles with entertainment value.
Both Wilder and Chandler were geniuses: Chandler a literary genius, but with no movie experience, and Wilder, an incomparable film director. As with most genius people, there are issues. Wilder was known as charming but disarming, always with a retort that could break glass; he did not hold back his feelings. Chandler was very reserve, introspective. Consequently, their two very different natures conflicted. Apart from the obvious problems, there were deep down secrets that ate away at both: Chandler was a closet alcoholic, although he boasted of being on the wagon; as to Wilder, it's a bit more complicated. His constant verbal insults covered up a fact he wanted to forget. He felt extreme guilt at having left his Austrian family in Europe to suffer the ravages of Hitler and the concentration camps.
In the play Wilder catches on to Chandler's drinking, as he peeks in on him from the bathroom - his favorite refuge - and Chandler to Wilder's secret, when he reads an open letter from the State Department. In an unpredictable, uncanny way, it's the differences that bring the men closer, at least close enough to be able to sit down together and work. In the beginning it's all Oscar and Felix from The Odd Couple where Wilder shoots off his mouth too much, irritating Chandler to no end, and Chandler whines about preferring to write in the confines of his own home rather than at the studio. The two men cannot seem to tolerate each other. Chandler makes a list of demands and walks out. But he's brought back when Wilder agrees to meet the demands on the provision that Chandler be more tolerant of him... so they move forward...productively but never smoothly.
Bencivenga keeps the bulk of his comic one-liners in Act I as introduction to the two characters. When Wilder spoke, people listened; he appeared charmingly glib and funny, irritatingly so to the quiet, nervous Chandler. Therefore, they were indeed an odd couple. The play eventually settles down into something far more serious and worthwhile. For both problematic men, work meant more than life, as it helped to cover, to conceal their intensely seething pain. With the success of Double Indemnity, Wilder went on at Paramount to direct other masterpieces like The Lost Weekend, The Apartment, Sunset Boulevard and Some Like It Hot; Chandler's alcoholism only worsened; he blamed Wilder as the cause of intensifying his habit and never forgave him; his only eventual success was the studio producing his novel The Big Sleep. Bencivenga's script has crystal clear, enlightening perspectives on Wilder and Chandler, creating rich portraits of each.
As to the acting, it's sublime. Shaun O'Hagan , with his Abe Lincoln-like stance and Gregory Peck demeanor, creates a very convincing picture of the intensely quiet Raymond Chandler. He makes him intelligent, laden with integrity and guarded, but never afraid to defend his own ground. A lovely performance! Kevin Blake is hilarious as Wilder. He has the accent, the moves and the sarcastically rude intent down pat. Like a tea kettle on a hot stove,we expect him to boil over at any second. Ali Spuck plays Helen Hernandez, Wilder's secretary with such miraculously loving detail that she raises her featured role to leading lady status. Mother hen that she is, Helen is an interesting person and in Spuck's hands, she's unforgettable. Anthony Starke adds vibrantly frenetic and volatile moments as a typical Hollywood producer Joe Sistrom. Marshall's pacing as director is terrific throughout and Keith Mitchell's set of the writers' offices at Paramount is visually spot.on.
As I watched Billy & Ray, and scenes from Double Indemnity were described and played out, images from the film flashed into my mind. I'm hardly a film buff, but this dark thriller remains an all-time favorite. And to think they convincingly portrayed murder and adultery without every showing either one, totally breaking the rules and keeping the censors content. I had forgotten about the infamous apartment door scene, and Mike Bencivenga's allusion to it in wrapping up the play is quite ingenious as an ode to Hollywood film-making magic. Well done!
For more about the production, visit www.falcontheatre.com.