It was uncanny how much “Noirtown” made me feel as if I was living inside a film noir classic like “The Maltese Falcon” or “The Big Sleep” – stylish, seductive, tough-talking and unfathomable. For much of the time, I didn’t know what the hell was going on.
“Noirtown” opened the inaugural Rave Theater Festival, which is presenting some 20 new works from August 9th through August 25th in a single building, The Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center at 107 Suffolk Street on the Lower East Side.
“Noirtown” unfolds on the second floor of the building, in Teatro Latea, a space with three rooms (two of them usually used as the backstage), two hallways, and a shallow mirrored alcove. This is an important detail, since the show, a production of a two-year-old immersive theater company called Witness, requires audience members to choose which characters to follow from room to room.
As with the classic film noir, “Noirtown” begins in mystery, but also something close to clarity.
In what looks like an old, dark lounge, with a bartender serving drinks, an attractive chanteuse with swept back hair, wearing a slinky red dress, walks up to the microphone and sings an old torch song.
When she’s finished, she grabs a drink…and is approached by a man in a trench coat and a fedora. He compliments her singing voice. She thanks him for the compliment. They start talking and she winds up telling him she has a problem: She lost some of her belongings in a fire, and needs a new passport, but when she went to get a copy of her birth certificate from the city clerk….somebody else had pretended to be her and had taken the original document just one day earlier.
The man reveals himself to be a “PI” – a private investigator — and offers to help. He lights the woman’s cigarette, illuminating their faces. Then he says: “You didn’t recognize me?”
She replies: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
But he’s sure he knows her from nine years earlier, and he is sure her name is Effie, though she says it’s Vivian.
The scene is intriguing. But at least half the audience missed it.
They went instead to one of the two other rooms. One looks like an old-fashioned office complete with a glass door etched with the name of a private detective (that’s actually a projection), where a different Effie in the same red dress approaches a different private investigator, younger than the first, with a different problem: Her sister is missing.
In the third room, which flashes projections of old film noir scenes onto the wall, a third Effie in the same red dress approaches a man who turns out to be a third private investigator, older than the other two, although he at first seems to be just an old haggard bum, sleeping on a bench. As they talk, it becomes clear they’re outdoors, in a rough part of town – they’re on the waterfront. She’s there because it’s near where a friend of hers drowned. She doesn’t think it was an accident, and she’s looking for a way to prove this. He offers to help.
That’s the set-up. What follows is….well, at one point two of the PIs get into a fight, and the older one pulls a gun; that was clear. There are sound effects of a car chase. There’s a dead body under a white sheet. And there are a lot of …cryptic conversations.
“None of this makes sense,” the oldest detective says at one point. “Years of cases, details, nothing fitting together.” I empathized.
It’s not surprising that all the Effies turn out to be lying, and that what the detectives unearth is convoluted. What’s more surprising is that these three cases turn out to be neither the central nor the most interesting mysteries. That would be: Why are there three Effies and three detectives?
I won’t give away any answers here. I’ll only say 1. the twist is fairly clever and unconventional, and 2. if you walk out of the show still feeling completely in the dark, please write to me and I’ll clarify as best as I can: After the show, playwright Michael Bontatibus, who is the artistic director of Witness, was kind enough to respond to my request and send me the script.
There is much to admire in the way the script respects the genre; “Noirtown” is not a parody in any way. I understand that an essential part of noir is to keep the audience in the dark, literally and metaphorically, as long as possible – to hold back information; Humphrey Bogart’s characters kept his cards close to his vest and his cigarette close to his lips.
The problem here is the show is also “immersive,” which in this case means it is in part designed for you to catch only some of what’s going on. About halfway through the piece, when all six actors are gathered together in the lounge, they reveal a crucial clue. If you miss it, you have to wait until near the end to make much sense of what follows. And the peripatetic staging makes it more likely you will miss the clue than in a conventionally staged mystery, which meticulously controls our attention.
Another aspect of the production that adds to the confusion is the employment of only six actors for a story that involves other important characters who are only talked about, rather than portrayed.
Still, I enjoyed “Noirtown,” didn’t mind at all rushing around from room to room (it felt like exercise), and deeply appreciated how spot-on some of the dialogue. One monologue in particular not only captures the noir rhythms of the character, but helps explain why a theater company like Witness would be drawn to the genre:
“This life we choose to lead, it’s dangerous, but we can’t quit. We love it, we love the smoke-filled lounges, the city after midnight, the gangsters, the dirty cops, the booze, the lies, all of it. Even though we know it’ll destroy us, it seduces us all the same. “
Noirtown will only be performed twice more, according to the Rave website, on August 17 and 24th, and they’re both sold out.
Update: Noirtown has added a “bonus performanc”e this Friday, August 16th at 9:30 PM