By David Cannon
[caption id="attachment_1053" align="alignright" width="200" caption="Marty Lodge and Celeste Ciulla in Round House Theatre’s current production of Double Indemnity. by Danisha Crosby"][/caption]
All you have to do is say the words “film noir,” and the images come flooding in. Rumpled trench coats and dim lighting. Crime scenes and decadent jazz. A world of alcohol, cigarettes, and women – and very pessimistic attitudes.
Closing the current season at Round House Theater in Bethesda is an interesting but not wholly successful adaptation of a classic noir novel and movie – “Double Indemnity.” True, the James M Cain novel does not feature a hardboiled detective like Sam Spade, but it has all the other ingredients for a noir classic. David Pichette and R Hamilton Wright did the adaptation for the stage, and Round House does a fine job in Act One bringing this deliciously sordid tale to life.
I just wish Act Two was as strong as the opening.
Jaded insurance agent Walter Huff visits one of his clients at home and instead runs into his wife – Phyllis Nirlinger, one of the most notorious femme fatales in literature. Huff falls for her hook, line and sinker – and soon they begin planning the death of Nirlinger’s loving but obtuse husband. Huff wants to use his insider knowledge of the insurance business to pull off the perfect crime. Insurance companies pay double indemnity for railroad accidents, so the happy adulterous couple could live on a very nice paycheck if their plans work out.
But this is noir – so things never work out as planned, and a complicated murder plot quickly gets even more complicated.
Marty Lodge makes his return to Round House as Huff, and his facial expressions and reactions add a lot of needed humor in the early scenes of this tale. Celeste Ciulla makes Phyllis an alluring enigma – you never know where this character stands or what her game is.
The remaining actors play several roles, but Todd Scofield is good as Keyes, a fellow insurance agent who smells a rat. Molly Cahill Govern plays Nirlinger’s daughter Lola as another intriguing cipher, and a potential second love interest for Huff, while Danny Gavigan’s Nino is a ne’er-do-well who blithely causes even more convoluted plot twists in an already complex scheme.
Director Eleanor Holdridge generally does a strong job with this byzantine plot. The tension and suspense as the couple hatch their plot and all the misadventures that happen along the way builds Act One to a strong climax. It is what happens afterwards that does not work. Too much happens off stage, while important people are kept apart or are not seen. The suspense that Round House works up so well in Act One quickly dissipates in the second half.
Meanwhile, the Round House designers set the noir mood nicely. Daniel Conway’s minimalist scene design suggests a variety of locales – a moving train, a hospital room, on board a ship – with just a few quick touches. The details are ably filled in by Matthew Nielson’s sound design, Kathleen Geldard’s period costumes, and the critical component of Nancy Schertler’s moody lighting.
[caption id="attachment_1052" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Marty Lodge as Huff in Round House Theatre’s current production of Double Indemnity. by Danisha Crosby"][/caption]This production does not replace Billy Wilder’s classic movie version – with Barbara Stanwyck in her signature role and Fred McMurray cast against type as Huff. Nor is that a reason to ignore this production, which adds some interesting details to this classic tale. For all the optimism of the post-war period, it was odd that such a pessimistic and dark genre as film noir could take root in American film.
It did take root and flourished. To modern audiences, the story and characters feel surprisingly contemporary.
“Double Indemnity” continues at Round House Theater in Bethesda through June 24. For more information, call (240) 644-1100 or go online to http://www.roundhousetheatre.org/.