As the playbill cover for Double Indemnity makes vibrantly clear, lipstick and bloodstains share the same bold color. But any shade of red is currently hard to find onstage at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. The Rep's flinty retelling of James M. Cain's tabloid suspense thriller plays out in blacks, whites and more gradations of gray than you'll find in Home Depot's paint aisle. Yet despite its monochromatic feel, the show shares the hues of many genres: Double Indemnity is a stage adaption of a novel that is better known as a movie — and the Rep version works well as a radio broadcast.
In writing this new script, playwrights David Pichette and R. Hamilton Wright were restricted to drawing from Cain's 1936 story. They could not dip into the now-classic ricochet dialogue in the 1944 film version, directed by Billy Wilder and co-scripted by Wilder and Raymond Chandler. Not a fatal problem. Cain was himself no slouch at the word game, and the adaptors have found plenty of untapped prose, including authentically pulpy lines like, "That's all it takes, one drop of fear, to curdle love into hate."
Nevertheless, anyone expecting to see the masterful Fred MacMurray-Barbara Stanwyck movie live onstage will be disappointed, because it ain't here. The film even changed the characters' names, so we don't get Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson. Now we meet bored housefrau Phyllis Nidlinger, who is looking for a way to turn a profit by rubbing out her ever-lovin' but oblivious hubby. Enter flirtatious insurance salesman Walter Huff, the ideal dunce to get duped into a loveless love affair that leads to murder.
The adaptors pared the novel with merciless discipline. They stripped bare character relationships and eliminated plot points that were even vaguely confusing. Their sole goal — and that of director Michael Evan Haney — is to drive the intermissionless evening forward as tautly and expeditiously as possible. The lean adaption comes off sounding like a narrative-driven episode of Lux Radio Theatre from the 1940s. There are times here when viewers can close their eyes and imagine they're listening to a radio, and this Double Indemnity will be crystal clear — though moody fog and smoke never came wafting into anyone's living room through the home radio.
Even though the Billy Wilder movie was off limits, inevitably this production is a loving homage to vintage cinema. In addition to the costumes by David Kay Mickelsen that would have us believe we're watching an old black-and-white flick, the striking scenic design by Paul Shortt features two revolving stages. When they turn together, presto: a movie dissolve. The jazzy background music by Matthew M. Nielson wails out like a full-throttled soundtrack score. James Sale's low-angled, high-contrast lighting is straight from the 1930s.
The actors, though, are not clones of their cinematic counterparts. As the hapless Walter, David Christopher Wells is as tall and effectively cryptic as the underrated Fred MacMurray, but Gardner Reed's Phyllis is not nearly so glacial as the steely Stanwyck. Reed is most effective in the scenes immediately after her husband's murder. But because she's acting on a stage, she is deprived of those close-ups in which a pair of piercing eyes can elicit shivers. Perhaps the greatest contrast between stage and screen affects Phyllis' stepdaughter Lola, whose role here feels more significant than in either the film or the novel. As portrayed with a coy sexual innocence by Joy Farmer-Clary, the naive Lola ultimately becomes a soul sister to Shakespeare's tragically confused Ophelia. Because in Cain's harsh world we are not disposed to care for anyone, it is somewhat of a surprise to find ourselves caring so much for Lola.
There's nothing profound here, no deep statement about the death of a salesman. But on its own lurid level, Double Indemnity delivers a consistently entertaining evening of hardboiled escapism, straight down the line. This onstage movie is a stylish finale to what has been a highly satisfying Rep season.
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