James M. Cain’s classic roman noir “Double Indemnity” titillated audiences in serial magazine form in 1936. The 1944 film adaptation is one of Old Hollywood’s high-water marks. The lurid potboiler about a pair of scheming lover-killers and the perfect murder that unravels around them seems tailor-made for a stage treatment, right?
Round House Theatre’s production of Double Indemnity is however, as one of its characters would say, “sunk.”
This new adaptation of Cain’s crime novel by actors turned writers David Pichette and R. Hamilton Wright captures the moody, noir atmosphere admirably but wrecks itself through stilted performances and clunky plotting (based on the charmingly flawed novel, which is a curio of its time and unfortunately not on the far superior screenplay by Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder, which has stood the test of time). Round House’s handsome production impresses and delights through its design elements but ultimately, frustratingly founders.
I would say that the plot is familiar to anyone that’s seen the celebrated film version, but actually it’s not. Instead of the movie’s likeable insurance salesman and gullible mark Walter Huff (renamed Neff in the film) falling for the crafty and seductive murderess Phyllis Nirlinger, (Dietrichson) here Walter is no everyman to relate to, as he’s portrayed as a callous womanizer who seems to want to commit murder out of boredom. This is one of several story decisions that pull the rug out from under what made the film so great.
The two still plan to murder Phyllis’ husband, and collect on the “double indemnity” clause buried in his insurance policy that pays double in the case of a rare fatal accident, but after the awkwardly directed murder scene right before intermission, Act Two gets preposterous fast, with hokey plot contrivances and a bizarre climax that Chandler and Wilder were smart to rework.
The extent of the flaws of this production was evidenced by the giggling audience at unintentional points and their marked distress at other times due to the ludicrous plot developments, half-baked dialogue and inflated acting.
Another challenge with the adaptation from page to stage was exposed in the frenetic pace of events, where within the first 10-15 minutes the two leads go from saying hello for the first time to (eyebrows raised) plotting murder. It’s as if the writers meant for it to be a caricature of 1930s pulp, but not quite, just toeing the border with camp and leaving the audience baffled with mixed signals. If the intent was tongue-in-cheek humor, that doesn’t work either as nothing particularly funny happens.
A co-conspirator in the sinking of this ship is Eleanor Holdridge’s direction of the actors. Instead of grim and bitter noir, Holdridge decided to stylize the acting to such a jokey degree and oversell the dialogue with such heightened cadence that the suspense is all but washed out and the characters become throwaway caricatures.
The terse exchanges between Walter and Phyllis, which should be the highlight of the play, are instead overdone and silly.
The biggest consequence of this directorial decision is the loss of any sexual chemistry between the leads. Cain’s prose (and the film adaptation) burns with a brash, threatening sexuality. Phyllis and Walter plan murder like they’re in heat and danger is a turn-on. Here they’re mired in melodrama and react to each other as if in syrup. The interaction between the guys at the insurance office is better, without the bizarrely exaggerated femme fatale Phyllis around.
Marty Lodge’s portrayal of Walter nails the character’s base smugness but there’s little register of motivation for what drives him to commit murder. Round House stalwart Lodge has the appropriate hangdog look and deadpan demeanor for the reprobate insurance peddler but lacks the smoldering contempt to enliven the characterization. In Lodge’s defense, he is consistent and withholds the hamminess to a tolerable level. Additionally, Walter relates much of his doomed scheme to us in direct address, which isn’t a hot way to move a narrative, but isn’t so bad here because these ruminations are some of his best lines. The “crooking the wheel” speech is near-Mamet level.
More problematic is Celeste Ciulla as Phyllis, who is directed to perform at such a high level of cloying camp as to actually be a lampoon of the hardboiled 1930s-40s aesthetic. Her performance is the most burlesque by a long shot, with an arch suggestiveness and an over-the-top, off-kilter cadence that grates at one’s sensibilities. Ciulla’s wildly affected performance, matched with the writer’s purple prose (“there’s something in me that loves Death. I think of myself as Death, sometimes in a scarlet shroud”), colors her characterization as a delirious madwoman. She’s more the fever-dream expressionism of Murnau than Cain’s gritty noir.
There was some gusto to be found in Todd Scofield’s insurance boss, Keyes, the claims adjuster and Walter’s colleague who’s determined to root out the truth behind the sketchy insurance claim. While he too plays a bit broad at times and is tasked with saying some ridiculous things, Scofield carries some of the best scenes of the show when discussing the merits of the case with Lodge. Scofield also adroitly plays the doomed Mr. Nirlinger, and deserves mention for successfully inhabiting two very different roles.
The highest praise for this show goes to Daniel Conway’s set and scenic design. Like a Japanese puzzle box, the set’s walls are made up of pivoting panels, continuously revealing and concealing. When complete, the backdrops manifest chiaroscuro projections of the various locales of the play, from the palm-lined streets of Los Angeles to an oil field to a train station. The music and sound design by Matthew M. Nielson is lushly gorgeous and cinematic, and along with Nancy Schertler’s noir-esque lighting, impeccably accompanies the scene transitions and implants a distinctively temperamental and cinematic ambience to the proceedings.
The stage crew deserves special mention as they seamlessly move things about during scene transitions, dressed to fit each scene – a very nice touch.
Finally, Kathleen Geldard’s period costumes are aces, especially Phyllis’ seductively slinky dresses, which convey the inner desires of the character with more precise acuity than all her lines about “the icy fingers of death” or floating in the ether as a Scarlet Witch. Say what?
By James M. Cain
Adapted for the stage by David Pichette and R. Hamilton Wright
Directed by Eleanor Holdridge
Produced by Round House Theatre
Reviewed by Roy Maurer
Running time: Approximately 2 hours with one intermission