Thursday, October 16, 2014

Review - Billy & Ray

Last night, I was again fortunate to be offered a ticket, this time to the Vineyard Theatre's production of Billy & Ray, by Mike Bencivenga.  Even though I'm starting to run down a bit, I figured it would be stupid to turn down the offer.  I enjoy Vincent Kartheiser, I really enjoy Larry Pine, and Double Indemnity is one of my favorite movies.  Another trifecta.  The play opens this Sunday, so I figure it should be pretty well set by now...

Brief seat neighbor report:  for some reason, almost every time I go to Vineyard, my seat is in the front row.  They must like me.  So I was in the front row again, sitting in front of two gentlemen who cracked me up.  First, they started talking about Double Indemnity (how Fred MacMurray was miscast, how awful Barbara Stanwyck's wig was, how the movie really isn't all that good).  Then they moved onto other shows they thought they had seen at the Vineyard (yes to Three Tall Women, poor Marian Seldes, and did we see that terrible awful Sylvia and Her Goat play here, too?), and then they moved on to a serious argument about how many theaters were in the area.  One guy was adamant that there was only the one space that used to be a bank and now had fake Cirque du Soleil, the other guy was adamant there was another space where the 'Kathleen Chalfant and her Cancer' play was, which used to be Tammany Hall.  I mean, they went back and forth about this for at least ten minutes.  They were a riot.  Oh, and they sounded like extras from The Sopranos, if you get my drift.  So imagine that conversation and smile, why don't you?  Also, to my right, was a gal who brought a bag of microwave popcorn with her.  And a water bottle that popped every time she opened it.  She also got on her phone at intermission to call her friend Cher (I don't know, she just kept saying Cher or Share, or something) to say, no, she couldn't commit to plans because she might get called for an audition.  And she doesn't get called for that many auditions, so she doesn't feel herself to be in a position to turn down an audition since she doesn't get that many.  Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm...

Moving on to the play:  Billy & Ray had a production out in California last year, with a different cast but the same director, Garry Marshall of tv fame.  The play details the writing of the film Double Indemnity and the fractious partnership between Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler.  Vincent Kartheiser, Mad Men's Pete Campbell, plays Wilder and theater treasure Larry Pine plays Raymond Chandler.  The other two members of the cast are Drew Gehling as the producer of the film, and Sophie Von Haselberg as Wilder's secretary.  A fun fact is that Ms. Von Haselberg is Bette Midler's daughter.  There is a resemblance, especially during one scene in particular, so that was sort of interesting to track throughout the play.

I didn't really enjoy the opening scene, which was done via recorded voice over in blackout.  It was an argument between Billy Wilder and his writing partner Charles Brackett.  Hearing the very odd accent that Kartheiser has adopted as Billy Wilder on tape before seeing it come out of his mouth (does that even make sense?) made it sound that much more awkward.  I mean, I got used to it, thanks to Kartheiser's charm and commitment to the character, but there's no denying it was a very off-putting dialect.  Yes, Billy Wilder had an Austrian accent, but this is...something else entirely.

There were a lot of witticisms about Hollywood, the Hays Code, actors of the era, and ideas/dialogue for Double Indemnity throughout the evening.  It was kind of interesting to figure out how the play kept turning in on itself and using fact and turning it into fiction and then back again.  For example, when Billy Wilder is talking about how Double Indemnity will be a movie about 'how they done it instead of who done it,' he could also be talking about this play itself.  We all know the movie got made, we know how the ending got resolved, we know who got cast.  But we don't know how it got accomplished, so that was an engaging part of the play.  Or when one of the writers realizes the movie is really a love story between the two men, and then you realize the play is too.

photo credit: Jennifer Broski
Having said that, I don't think the script itself is very good.  Scenes are rather haphazardly put together, motivations are all over the place (one argument comes completely out of nowhere) and I found the secretary's phone calls from her sister to just be a silly distraction.  The dialogue tries to be fast and funny, but much of the time it isn't, really.  I did smile a few times, generally actor/character-based, but only had one laugh-out-loud moment, which WAS pretty funny, to the author's credit.  And falling back on the 'each actor will break the fourth wall and tell what happened next' at the end was a bit cheap.  But even though the script isn't great, I enjoyed the production.  It's directed very well, very breezy and smooth.  The physical production is fantastic, with a terrific set and well-done lights and sound.  Plus, Kartheiser and Pine are really terrific; they create very real, relatable, interesting characters - they both have charm and chemistry in spades, so I kept wishing they had a better script to really show them off to a better advantage.  They truly kept me engaged and I wanted to know what they would do next.  And I did like imagining that this is how Double Indemnity came to be.  It's odd to be recommending a show that I don't think is all that well-written, but I'm going to do just that, especially if you're into either of the lead actors, 1940s Hollywood and/or Double Indemnity.  It was a fun evening, I'm surprised to report.

Not many shows coming up for a bit - I'm off on a mini-vacation tomorrow, so hopefully more free tickets will fall into my lap when I return.  Fingers crossed...

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