I say this as a fellow who loves television, and, even more, who has a great fondness for many of the sitcoms showrun by writer-director-producer Garry Marshall in his heyday: If you’re not by nature a theatre person, if you didn’t work and train in the theatre before your career in TV began, you rarely get to migrate from TV to theatre “for free”: you bring with you the instincts, reflexes and, more important, the aesthetics of the kind of television in which you’ve specialized. And while there are certainly advantages to bringing the perspective of another medium to the oldest one—heaven knows contemporary theatre has put cross-pollination to great use—the problems occur when it’s functionally the only perspective.
Mike Vencivenga’s Billy and Ray is his historical extrapolation of what the collaboration between thriller-writer Raymond Chandler (Larry Pine) and screenwriter-director Billy Wilder (Vincent Kartheiser) might have been as they worked on the screenplay for the trail-blazing 1944 suspense drama Double Indemnity. After a fashion it seems to be an Odd Couple-like comedy about two vastly different men: Wilder a demanding, young, crude, womanizing immigrant; Chandler a strait-laced, undemonstrative married man who claims to be a reformed alcoholic but carries a small bottle in his brief case for the odd spirit-bracing nip. The contrast is classic yet interesting enough, and the process as dramatized intriguing enough—
—but beyond that it’s harder than you might think to assess the play properly, because, after a fashion, I’m not entirely sure I saw it. And that’s because Garry Marshall has directed it rather like an episode of The Odd Couple—which is very different in “feel” than the play of The Odd Couple. Because the sitcom was more compact, and had to score its points in 22 minutes rather than 100, and filmed “live,” three-camera style, it favored a hotter performance style and broader characterization in quicker strokes. Subsequently, Billy and Ray never quite relaxes into what may be its more natural pace and playing style; it’s in-your-face almost in the manner of screwball comedy right away, with Kartheiser’s German-accented Wilder blasting onstage like something out of a sketch about Krazy Krauts, as if he had no reality offstage.
The disjunct here, and what makes me think there’s more, perhaps, to the play than meets the senses, is that Larry Pine is one of those actors who—in the best sense—brings baggage with him. He has a lived-in persona that can’t be eradicated, so he wanders into Marshall’s directorial imprimatur like a fellow from a different play, not merely a different personal aesthetic. And of course this makes me wonder if perhaps Kartheiser is a casting mistake; could there have been another young actor with as much dimension as Pine to really spark the alchemy. Yet Drew Gehling as Wilder’s producer and Sophie Von Haselberg as his loyal secretary-assistant are also performing in the high-energy sitcom style, so I’m hard-pressed to know if Kartheiser is personifying the style, merely abetting the style or trapped in it.
All that’s really clear, if that’s the word, is that the play is somewhat trapped in it. As will happen in such a circumstance, in the second act you’ve gotten used to the excess, and as well, things have calmed down a bit—now that the characters are familiar with each other, a little more intimacy is not only inevitable but unavoidable…and of course that only makes one’s feelings about the play more ambivalent. Would it all work better if the touch were lighter? We’re not, after all, talking about a director who doesn’t know what’s funny, nor even who doesn’t know when comedy is properly motivated. All that knowledge is the secret of Garry Marshall’s well-deserved success.
But he doesn’t seem to be able to harness—at least here—what’s real, in terms of behavioral nuance and human interaction. He’s sellin’ it, rather than trusting it to find a natural level.
So this one’s a head-scratcher. I don’t really know what to tell you. I wasn’t bored and I was glad to be there. You may feel the same…but with the play and/or presentation being just that few essential kliks off kilter, it’s anybody’s guess…
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