Noir fiction thrives in its hard-boiled lyricism, in language as blunt as the nose of a revolver. Noir film is a realm of shadows and light, of bursts of sound and inscrutable danger. Noir theater? Well, that’s … hmm.
The Old Globe is taking a stab at it with its theatrical production of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, a novel published in 1943 that became a classic film a year later, directed by Billy Wilder and starring Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson. A stage adaptation by David Pichette and R. Hamilton Wright, which premiered nearly two years ago in Seattle, is very much true to Cain’s literary rhythm and attitude. Moreover, on the Sheryl and Harvey White stage, the Globe’s Christopher Barreca, Shawna Cadence and Ben Thoron team up on a design and lighting scheme that comes close to giving the play the desired film noir motif. Invoking 1940s Los Angeles, from the Long Beach oil fields to Hollywood & Vine, on a small stage is no snap, but by and large, the Globe production directed by John Gould Rubin manages the logistics.
Yet even with Cain’s anti-heroic characters and the sharp-dressed cast (period costumes by David Israel Reynoso) portraying them, the production doesn’t rise to the level of hardcore noir. It’s suspenseful, sometimes funny and other times spooky, but it does not fully inhabit the genre. It’s true that for all its brilliance, the beloved Wilder film’s figures smack of caricature, but then pop historians have made film noir a cultural stereotype. The Globe cast, in the story of a duplicitous (and worse) woman who with the help of a morally bankrupt insurance salesman murders her husband, does avoid affectation. In fact, Angel Desai as aspiring black widow Phyllis Nirlinger, is sexiness personified and is able to convey both desperation and deceit. Michael Hayden is her more calculating, and human, counterpart as insurance man Walter Huff, who by the end of the play actually elicits a degree of sympathy. Murphy Guyer doubles as the targeted husband and as Huff’s boss, and his performance is the most grounded among the ensemble of five, which also includes Megan Ketch and Vayu O’Donnell.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.