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BWW Reviews: Intriguing Effort Putting DOUBLE INDEMNITY Onstage

Double Indemnity/reinvented for the stage by David Pichette and R. Hamilton Wright/based on the novel by James M. Cain/directed by John Gould Rubin/Old Globe, San Diego/Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre/extended through September 1

First and foremost, be aware that this new stage version of the classic Double Indemnity is not based on the 1944 film noir adaptation by Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder. It is based on the novel by James M. Cain and re-envisioned for the stage by David Pichette and R. Hamilton Wright. That has its good and bad points. Good, in that the stagecraft and design, as well as the acting and direction, are delightful to watch. Bad, in that the melodramatic ending of the film is so much more delicious and exciting than this intelligent, realistic but rather heavy ending. Extended through September 1, Double Indemnity provides enough entertainment, though, to make it a sell-out hit.

The play is set in 1937. I noticed on opening night that during the initial seduction scene between Walter Huff (Michael Hayden) and Phyllis Nirlinger (Angel Desai) there was very pronounced giggling from the audience when Huff states "We're going to do it!" Desai as Phyllis is sensuously adorning the setee, and the first impression that comes to mind is that doing it obviously refers to f----ing, but what it really alludes to is doing away with her husband Herbert (Murphy Guyer), so that Huff and Phyllis can collect on the husband's insurance. The sexual tension is humorous, but it is clear to see as well that the piece is dated. By present day standards the couple would have been 'rolling in the hay' at the top. But, regardless, it's fun to observe the language, the behavior and how both together generate a laugh.

Act I, for aficionados of the 1944 film, is pretty much the same with Huff narrating to the audience about how he managed to get himself lured into the setup and eventual murder. In his opening monologue, you cannot help but notice the unusual structure of the set around him, so let me switch early on to the element of set design. Christopher Barreca's set and the lighting design by Stephen Strawbridge are absolutely brilliant. There is a turntable which moves in a circle and furniture adapts itself from one locale to the next, like a bed or setee converting to a bench. The small stage is boarded by screens on four sides which rise and fall at various intervals to cage/emprison the characters, really making one feel their fear, entrapment and doom. It works beautifully. Act II is where most of the action becomes radically different from the movie. Huff confesses to Keyes (also played by Murphy Guyer) that he has murdered Nirlinger, after Phyllis has attempted to kill him in a 'love turned hate' rage. I do not wish to disclose the entire ending to spoil the fun, but merely to alert that it is not the same as in the film. I will only repeat that it is less melodramatic, and add that in a good way there is still intrigue and an extremely lurid look particularly represented by Phyllis' red gown, designed by David Israel Reynoso.

The acting ensemble is first rate under John Gould Rubin's wonderful pacing and staging. Hayden is cool and determined as Huff, accepting of the conflict, never showing an ounce of turmoil beneath. Desai as Phyllis offers a much different interpretation than Barbara Stanwyck's iciness. She is sexy and cunning in a very feminine but uncalculating way. Guyer is superb in both roles as the husband and as Keyes. Megan Ketch is riveting as Lola Nirlinger, Herbert's daughter - a role with far less attention on film - and also as Keyes' assistant and a nurse. Vayu O'Donnell completes the excellent group as Lola's boyfriend Sachetti, and essaying two other roles.

I loved the film and found this production somewhat less engrossing, but I laud the creative team and the actors for a stellar evening of theatre, which on its own, as Huff states early on about committing murder, is laden with audacity.

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From This Author - Don Grigware

  Don Grigware was a writer for BroadwayWorld through December 2019.                            ... (read more about this author)