Rephrasing Cain

30. January, 2012 Theater No comments

If crime doesn’t pay, it’s not for lack of trying. Though it’s a quick and pulpy read, hardboiled crime writer James M. Cain’s 1935 novella Double Indemnity gives some of the same moral lessons as Fyodor Dostoevsky’s literary classic Crime and Punishment—that murder, no matter how carefully planned or covered up, has a tendency to hound the perpetrators to the ends of the earth.

Carrie Paff and John Bogar in Double Indemnity. Photo by Chris Bennion.

Like Cain’s very similar story The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity is about a femme fatale wife plotting with her new lover to kill her husband, and how things turn sour after they pull it off. In this instance the lover is the family’s insurance agent, and he’s in it for the money—to defraud his own company into coughing up not only for an accidental death claim, but paying double because it happened on a train.

No matter how carefully insurance man Walter Huff plans the murder, complicating factors abound. He’s still not sure he can trust his partner in crime, the slinky Phyllis Nirlinger. Mr. Nirlinger’s daughter Lola keeps coming to him for favors or to voice suspicions about her mother-in-law, and Lola’s boyfriend Nino seems to be up to no good. Most worrisomely, Walter’s coworker Keyes, a monomaniacal claims adjuster, sees something fishy about the case and won’t rest until he figured out what it is.

Double Indemnity is best known for the 1944 movie version starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson, which has rightly become a classic of the film noir genre. Substantially rewritten by Raymond Chandler and director Billy Wilder, the movie greatly punches up Cain’s dialogue and completely changes the ending. Now San Jose Repertory Theatre unveils a new stage version that, for better or worse, is much more true to Cain in a world premiere coproduction with Seattle’s A Contemporary Theatre, which premiered it first in October.

The script by David Pichette and R. Hamilton Wright is diligently faithful to the book, enough so that its divergences stand out. It skips over any of the material about Nino’s motivations, for instance, and drastically abbreviates Walter’s meticulous process of setting up his alibis. Some embellishments work remarkably well, such as an added touch of the husband getting suspicious of Walter, if not of his wife. A climactic face-off between Phyllis and Walter that doesn’t happen in the novel is particularly striking. Other additions such as a bit of disturbing love play with a knife are a bit more perplexing.

The biggest flaw in the play is not a result of the changes made but of its fidelity to the source material. The dialogue is mostly either straight from the novel or at least very true to its terse, minimal style. In the book Walter is omnipresent as the first-person narrator, so we don’t have to guess at why he does things or what the significance of what other people say or do is to him. He brings his keen eye and experience as an insurance man to every interaction and isn’t stingy about sharing it with the reader. When Mrs. Nirlinger asks about accident insurance, Walter tells us immediately in the book that it’s a huge red flag. When the scene is reduced to just its surface dialogue in the play, it takes longer for it to sink in that something’s mighty suspicious, and when Walter broaches the subject of murder it seems completely out of the blue.

A bit of the narration survives in brief monologues between scenes, and the balance between showing and telling is pretty good at this point, so I doubt would be the best solution. More of Walter’s thinking process should come out in the dialogue, and maybe some of the subtle hints that he picks up on might be a little less subtle to let the audience in on them too.

Some of those blanks could also be fleshed out in performance, but John Bogar’s portrayal of Walter doesn’t offer much glimpse into his internal life. He doesn’t convey anything but some combination of cockiness and nervous jitters, least of all any chemistry with Carrie Paff’s Phyllis. He’s all business, which doesn’t engender much interest in how things turn out for him.

Directed by A Contemporary Theatre artistic director Kurt Beattie, the cast is a made up of three Seattle actors and two Bay Area ones. On the local side, Paff can also be difficult to read as Phyllis, but in a genre-appropriate way that helps preserve the character’s mystery. Certainly her playful firtatiousness gives off a lot of the sexual heat that’s lacking in Bogar’s Walter. Paff’s recent Tiny Alice castmate Mark Anderson Phillips is marvelously creepy as Lola’s shifty boyfriend Nino, who looks at Walter the way a feasting animal might look at any intruder that could take its meal away. He’s also entertaining as a blithely chatty train passenger and as Walter’s pompous milquetoast boss.

From the Seattle posse, Jessica Martin is a bright, sparkling presence as the precocious Lola, and she has a charming cameo as a nerdy secretary with a clomping walk. Ziman’s rumpled, regular-joe Keyes is much more hearty and friendly than the abrasive character in the book or movie, which makes a line like “I don’t often like somebody” less believable, but also makes him an enjoyable presence and brings out the humor in lines that may or may not be intended to have it. He conveys a good sense of a successful man who considers himself shrewd as Nirlinger, but it’s not always immediately obvious which part he’s playing, at least not while the husband is still kicking.

Beattie’s production does capture the mood of the genre, between Rick Paulsen’s moody lighting, Annie Smart’s sharp period costumes and Brendan Patrick Hogan’s sounds of rain and thunder. Thomas Lynch’s intriguing and versatile rotating set depicts a towering, dark green ship’s hull that opens to reveal various rooms.

This Indemnity succeeds generally in conveying the mood, voice and basic plot of its hard-boiled source material, but to really make it work as a story, to make it both emotionally involving and generally comprehensible, it needs a bit more attention to the details. Much like the perfect murder.

Double Indemnity
Through February 5
San Jose Repertory Theatre
101 Paseo de San Antonio
San Jose, CA

Show #3 of 2012, attended January 19.

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