Story: Walter Huff makes his living selling insurance policies in Los Angeles. He meets with gruff businessman Herbert Nirlinger to discuss the latter’s insurance needs. While at Nirlinger’s impressive home, Huff strikes up a conversation with Herbert’s wife, Phyllis.
Walter and Phyllis share an immediate bond, and the sparks of passion lead them to consider a sinister plot: A policy taken out on Herbert’s life that can be cashed by Phyllis in the event of his untimely death at twice its cost, or double indemnity.
But can the two of them achieve their plan without causing suspicion in the minds of Phyllis’ stepdaughter, Lola, or Walter’s inquisitive colleague, Keyes? After all, claims advisor Keyes views payoffs by his company as anathema, and scrupulously considers all possibilities, including murder, before signing off on any payment. This is no exception.
Highlights: Novelist James M. Cain contributed a nifty pair of stylish thrillers to the American literary canon with The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, both written in the 1930s. Each was adapted into memorable motion pictures, with the latter changed substantially from the novel in order to clear the Hays Office, which censored films from the mid-‘30s to the late ‘60s.
That movie version, however, was excellent in its own right and is today considered the benchmark for the legendary cinematic style known as film noir. With a screenplay by noted director Billy Wilder and Philip Marlowe creator Raymond Chandler, and a cast led by Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson, it’s a must view on Turner Classic Movies.
This theatrical adaptation, first presented last year in Seattle, is smart and savvy itself and is given expert interpretation in The Rep’s version courtesy of director Michael Evan Haney. The taut script by David Pichette and R. Hamilton Wright is reminiscent not only of the movie (I’ve not read the novel) version but also of its kindred spirit, 1981’s Body Heat.
Other Info: Major stars of The Rep’s production include Paul Shortt’s ingenious set design and James Sale’s wonderfully atmospheric lighting. As Shortt writes in his program notes, all 29 scenes from the film are included in the one-act theatrical version that utilizes a scenic design that at different times is Nirlinger’s handsome abode, Keyes’ office, Huff’s shabby apartment, and even a train caboose and the seats of an automobile, as one side of the design swivels around to showcase various scenes.
Sale’s lighting is spectacular, as elongated silhouettes dominate the background or low-range illuminating sets the tone for desolate, night-time mystery. It’s consistently clever and beguiling, much like Phyllis, who oddly wears flats through much of the performance in David Kay Mickelsen’s costume design, which otherwise smartly conveys the era and the somber mood of the script.
The dialogue by Pichette and Wright rings true when hearkening the film version, but there’s quite a bit of difference in the plots at a certain point. For example, Robinson’s erudite, buttoned-down Keyes is replaced in the play with a more combustive, volatile persona portrayed by Michael Sean McGuinness. Not inferior, just markedly different.
Gardner Reed is as smooth as the deadly scarf of the coy Phyllis, who definitely is more than she seems at first and proves equal to the supposedly clinical and indifferent Huff. The insurance salesman is etched in an evocative and thoroughly convincing performance by David Christopher Wells, who grabs the audience’s interest and holds it firmly until the surprising climax.
Joy Farmer-Clary effectively inhabits the winsome and wholesome character of the skeptical stepdaughter, Lola, while Kevin Cutts shows us the nasty, snarling nature of brutish businessman Herbert. Eddie Boroevich shines in two precise smaller roles, as Lola’s idle boyfriend Nino and as a haughty associate of Keyes and Huff. He’s also fine in another small part, as is Carrie Vaughan as an office secretary.
Haney keeps the pace tight, shrewdly taking advantage of that nifty set as well as a haunting sound design composed by Matthew Nielson that consistently brings to mind other film noir classics such as Chinatown.
Whether it’s the novel, the movie or the play, Double Indemnity has staying power and a beautiful ability to evoke danger and intrigue, lust and desire, crime and punishment, all in chilling and intriguing style.
Play: Double Indemnity
Group: Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Venue: Browning Mainstage, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: Through April 7
Tickets: From $19.50; contact 968-4925 or repstl.org
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Jerry Naunheim Jr.