“No killing, no dead body, no sex, no nothing. Just talk.”
That line is uttered near the end of “Billy & Ray,” a play about the collaboration of director Billy Wilder and writer Raymond Chandler on the film “Double Indemnity.” The film’s producer is on the phone with the head of the Hollywood censorship office, using these words to describe the film in order to reassure him.
It is a sly description of the 1944 movie starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck that embodied a genre later labeled film noir, where, to get around the censors, all the dark doings an audience could want happen off-screen (sometimes inches off screen.)
Yet the line could also describe Mike Vencivenga’s play itself: Nothing much happens, just talk, in this disappointing production at the Vineyard Theater, directed by Garry Marshall. Its main appeal, to be honest, is in being able to witness the New York stage debuts of two of the performers in the four-member cast – Vincent Kartheiser, Pete Campbell from Mad Men, portraying Billy Wilder, and, as his secretary Helen, Sophie von Haselberg, who looks and acts uncannily like a young Bette Midler — and is in fact her daughter.
The play begins in the dark with sounds of a fight, and, when the lights come on Wilder’s Hollywood studio office in disarray, we learn that his long-time writing partner has quit, refusing to help him adapt James M. Cain’s novel “Double Indemnity,” because it is “full of sex and violence, perversion and lust.”
“But that’s why we love it,” says Joe Sistrom the producer (Drew Gehling.)
So, on Sistrom’s recommendation, Wilder turns to a writer he’s never met, the crime novelist Raymond Chandler (Larry Pine, a first-rate New York stage veteran, most recently in Casa Valentina)
Wilder is expecting a tough guy, and when the mild-mannered, middle-aged Chandler shows up at the door, he assumes he’s the exterminator, until the visitor clears up the confusion: “I’m Raymond Chandler,” he introduces himself.
“Are you sure?” a disappointed Wilder asks — a line that makes no sense except in the world of a bad sitcom, where it would exist solely to get an unearned laugh.
Director Garry Marshall began as a joke writer. Yet nearly every joke, verbal or visual, falls just as flat. It’s not the only area in which his track record doesn’t seem to help the show.
Marshall also brought “The Odd Couple” to television, and one might expect some similar entertaining clashes here: Wilder is depicted as an elegantly foul-mouthed, hard-drinking philanderer, an expatriate from Vienna with a strong Austrian accent, while Chandler is presented as a Chicago-born loner, a family man and former schoolteacher who is an alcoholic but tries to hide it (taking frequent gulps, when nobody’s looking, from a bottle in his briefcase.) At one point, Chandler yells at Wilder “You and your whole expatriate crowd make me sick. You stand back and smirk at this country.” I find this an extremely unlikely exchange, given that (unmentioned in the play) Chandler himself spent ages 12 to 24 in Europe, mostly in England (where he became a British citizen), but also Munich and Paris. In spite of the apparently bogus effort to goose the disparity in their backgrounds and character, nothing much comes of it. We don’t get anywhere near Odd Couple humor; the bickering most often sounds like what one might overhear from colleagues in the next cubicle: “If you insist on smoking that pipe,” Wilder says at one point, “I must insist that we open the window.”
Marshall has been a film director for several decades now (Beaches, Pretty Woman, Princess Diaries), and one might expect at the very least something of a class on film history. There are some tidbits here and there. We learn in an epilogue that Wilder’s subsequent film, The Lost Weekend, was inspired by Chandler’s alcoholism. We get an explanation of the Hollywood Production Code, and how filmmakers reacted to it
BILLY: It forbids us from doing stories about adultery, cold blooded murder and suicide. And they’re not too crazy about us showing how to steal money from insurance companies.
RAY: Then what can we do? To tell this story we’re going to have to be very subtle.
BILLY: Ugh. Don’t give me with the subtleties.
RAY: You don’t like subtleties?
BILLY: Subtleties are fine. As long as we make them obvious. To get this by the censors we have to be ingenious…
The bulk of the play is taken up with Wilder and Chandler “writing” the scenes of the film by talking it all out. They figure out the practical challenges of executing the dark plot about an insurance salesman and a sinful woman conspiring to kill her husband. (Sometimes, as in the photograph above, the lights dim and music plays while they describe a scene, as if to re-create what it will feel like once it’s filmed — an effect that’s not very effective.) These talked-out scenes offer little new for somebody who’s seen “Double Indemnity” and might prove excruciating for somebody who hasn’t, but I could picture this providing some enjoyment to a fanatical cinephile.
A different stage director might have improved the pacing of “Billy & Ray,” but it’s difficult to know whether a different cast would have been better at covering up the flaws of the script. This is not one of Larry Pine’s best performances. Kartheiser seems miscast as the European bon vivant and sophisticate whose family has perished overseas, but my reaction might reflect my inability to get over his indelible performance as the whiny advertising man in Mad Men. In the performance I saw, there were some signs of a newcomer to stage acting. Wilder regularly throws his hat on a hatrack. One time, he missed and the hat fell to the ground. Wilder didn’t pick it up — and worse, neither did his secretary, although she was standing right next to it — just letting it stay on the floor until the next blackout.
On the other hand, before I even realized who she was, it struck me that von Hasselberg was taking her moves directly from the Bette Midler playbook, and making them her own. In another scene, Wilder calls in Helen “to flirt with Mr. Chandler,” in order to demonstrate how women flirt with men so that he can get into the head of the Barbara Stanwyck character in the film. He tells her to slink up to him as if in a bar, then look at him sexy…
BILLY: Good. Now tip your carriage toward him.
HELEN: My what?
BILLY: Your carriage. Your caboose. Move it toward him
Helen shakes her booty.
BILLY: No no. Like a woman! Not a Cocker Spaniel.
HELEN: All right. That’s it. Show’s over.
It’s a totally silly scene, a bit awkwardly executed — and the only time I laughed out loud.
Billy & Ray
At The Vineyard Theater
By Mike Bencivenga; directed by Garry Marshall; sets by Charlie Corcoran; costumes by Michael Krass; lighting by Russel H. Champa; music and sound by David Van Tieghem;
Cast: Drew Gehling (Joe Sistrom), Vincent Kartheiser (Billy Wilder), Larry Pine (Raymond Chandler) and Sophie von Haselberg (Helen Hernandez).
Running time: 2 hours, including intermission.
Billy & Ray is scheduled to run through November 9th.