Stunning Set Gives Audience A Film Noir Feel As “Double Indemnity” Closes The Rep Season

Intense lighting (including footlights) enhance the noir feel of "Double Indemnity" at the Rep. Photo courtesy of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Intense lighting (including footlights) enhance the noir feel of “Double Indemnity” at the Rep. Photo courtesy of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Fog-like smoke swirls around the set of “Double Indemnity” as the audience walks into the theatre for this season finale at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. The magnificent Paul Shortt set design puts you in the mood before the play begins. Stark gray buildings highlighted by ornamental steel window treatments are then enhanced by the moody feel of the James Sale lighting design. Once the play gets rolling, so does the set. It glides smoothly from the aft of a ship to  the Nirlinger’s front room to Walter Huff’s home to his office to a car to the back of a train and various other locations as the actors transition through the smoothest set changes you’ll ever see. It’s stunning to see and even more exciting to watch as we travel through the world of “Double Indemnity.”

Joy Farmer-Clary, Kevin Cutts and Gardner Reed have an uneasy family meeting in the Rep's "Double Indemnity." Photo courtesy of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Joy Farmer-Clary, Kevin Cutts and Gardner Reed have an uneasy family meeting in the Rep’s “Double Indemnity.” Photo courtesy of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Based on James M. Cain’s novel the story centers on an insurance man who stumbles into a situation he can’t resist which leads to events he can no longer control. Of course, a woman is involved and she convinces him to write a policy on her husband that pays double for death via train accident (this all takes place in 1937, so that may not be as far-fetched as it sounds today). We find the woman is using him, two-timing him and her stepdaughter steps into the mess while his boss begins to smell a rat as well. So, the best laid plans begin to fall apart. It all makes for a good read in the original novel and- though altered to fit the Hollywood model- the movie turned out very well too.

David Christopher Wells and Michael Sean McGuinness trade theories on the murder in "Double Indemnity" at the Rep. Photo courtesy of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

David Christopher Wells and Michael Sean McGuinness trade theories on the murder in “Double Indemnity” at the Rep. Photo courtesy of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Unfortunately, the new script by David Pichette and R. Hamilton Wright doesn’t hold up to either earlier work and film noir becomes stage no. Even some of the movies of that era are a bit laughable by today’s standards, but they work. During this performance, there were several instances where the audience laughed at some of the dialogue and situations that unfolded. To paraphrase Tom Hanks, “there’s no laughing at film noir!” So writers and director Michael Evan Haney had to make the decision to either treat it as homage or treat it as satire. It came out as

a mixture and that just didn’t work. Director Haney, though hampered with the script, handles the direction well- playing it with a keen eye for noir mystique. He is particularly adept at almost choreographing his actors around those multiple set changes.

The actors give it their all. David Christopher Wells plays it straight with a bit of a mumble and a fast delivery (sometimes too fast as we miss a line or two- especially when he has his back to us). But his Walter Huff captures the essence of those film noir greats. As the femme fatale, Phyllis Nirlinger, Gardner Reed could have smoldered a bit more as she came off more bossy and desperate. Joy Farmer-Clary as the devious daughter, Lola, had no trouble with the smolder- she played it to the hilt. And Michael Sean McGuinness is blustery as Walter’s boss who finally gets to the bottom of the “something doesn’t smell right” case of the husband who winds up dead on the railroad tracks.

Gardner Reed silhouetted in the outstanding set and lighting design at the Rep's "Double Indemnity." Photo courtesy of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Gardner Reed silhouetted in the outstanding set and lighting design at the Rep’s “Double Indemnity.” Photo courtesy of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

As that husband, Kevin Cutts does a fine job as does Carrie Vaughan as an associate and Eddie Boroevich in multiple roles including the headstrong boyfriend of Lola. There was only one glaring error in the wonderful costume design of David Kay Mickelsen- that being the flats worn by Phyllis. Gardner Reed may have had a foot problem, but otherwise, no respectable film noir vamp wears anything but heels- and mules with heels when in a dressing gown.

Doing some background work on the play, it looks like it started out as two acts and has now been trimmed to a more workable long one-act. There still needs to be some trimming done, however to make it more like a true noir or go the other way as they did with the musical, “City Of Angels” which played it for laughs.

It’s hard not to recommend the play, however, for the spectacular set and execution of the scene changes and the whole atmosphere it creates as well as fine work by the cast. “Double Indemnity” plays at the Rep Mainstage through April 7th. Call them at 314-968-4925 or contact the Rep at http://www.repstl.org for tickets or more information.

 

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