Reviewed by Judy Richter
Greed and lust fuel the main characters in "Double Indemnity," the 1935 James M. Cain noir crime novel set in '30s Los Angeles. It was made into a 1944 film starring Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. Now David Pichette and R. Hamilton Wright have altered the plot somewhat and transformed the novel into a stage version being given its world premiere as a co-production of San Jose Repertory Theatre and Seattle's A Contemporary Theatre.
Kurt Beattie, ACT's artistic director, has staged a highly stylized production featuring just the two lead actors plus three others playing eight other characters. John Bogar as insurance salesman Walter Huff is onstage throughout the two-act drama, often narrating in the first person as he helps to propel the action. Walter's romantic interest is Phyllis Nirlinger, played by Carrie Paff. She's the glamorous second wife of a wealthy, older oil man, Nirlinger (Richard Ziman). Walter is immediately attracted to her.
Walter and Phyllis come up with a seemingly foolproof plan to murder her husband, making his death seem like an accident, then collecting on his life insurance policy. They go through with their plan, but getting the money isn't so easy. The police think Nirlinger committed suicide, while Keyes (Ziman again), a claims adjuster for Walter's employer, thinks he was murdered.
Other complications arise as the plot slowly unravels. There's no happily ever after for anyone.
Bogar's Huff is a smooth operator, seemingly amoral until he realizes that an innocent person might be implicated. Paff's Phyllis is a seductive vamp with depths of evil that manifest themselves along the way. Ziman's Nirlinger is a smug man who enjoys having a trophy wife like Phyllis, while his Keyes is both sharp and increasingly perceptive. He's the play's most admirable character.
Jessica Martin plays Lola Nirlinger, 18-year-old daughter of Nirlinger and his deceased first wife. She also appears as Nettie, Keyes' secretary, and as a nurse. Mark Anderson Phillips shows his versatility as Nino, Lola's sullen boyfriend, a man one immediately mistrusts. He also plays Norton, an uptight higher-up with Walter's employer; and Jackson, a train passenger.
In keeping with the noir theme and helping to create an air of suspense are Thomas Lynch's set, Rick Paulsen's moody lighting, Brendan Patrick Hogan's sound and Adam Stern's music. The stylish '30s costumes are by Annie Smart.
Perhaps because the direction and acting are not quite realistic, some audience members seemed less than impressed on opening night. The couple in front of me left at intermission. It's too bad that they couldn't just sit back and enjoy this production for what it is -- a genre seen more often in novels and film than on stage. Those who do so are rewarded with a suspenseful, tense drama with twists and turns -- highly enjoyable in my book.