Zip It, Gumshoe

A Killer Story is a strange case. It has the trappings of a hardboiled detective yarn, but instead of snappy dialogue what you have is competing, overlapping monologues that are less about the case in question than the idea of the case—or rather the idea of detective work in general. Our gumshoe’s not big on details. It’s a show at the Marsh Berkeley, a hub for solo theater pieces, but this one’s a play written for a cast of three, even if they all tell their separate versions of the same story as if they’re performing three solo shows at the same time.

Ryan O’Donnell and Madeline H.D. Brown in A Killer Story. Photo by David Allen.

Playwright Dan Harder is big on “zippered” writing, what I would call interlaced or interwoven monologues going back and forth to approximate dialogue. You know, the pieces come together from both sides like a zipper. He’s published a book of zippered poetry and used the technique for the libretto of his modern opera Zipperz, which debuted with the East Bay Symphony in 2008. In a dramatic context it’s not exactly a unique technique; it’s something playwrights do from time to time even if they don’t have a fancy name for it. Trevor Allen’s 2009 Frankenstein adaptation The Creature was also written in overlapping monologues from three perspectives, for example.

Here’s the caper: A scientist is missing, a guy who’s been working on developing a “brain chip” to increase people’s mental capacity. A private detective is hired by both the wife and the research partner of the missing neuroscientist, Praveen Sengupta, to find him or find out what happened to him. Rather than doing any independent research or pavement-pounding, detective Rick goes back and forth between his two clients, grilling them on their possible motives for wanting the guy dead. Rick fancies himself a 1930s-style private eye and dresses and talks like one, but the play’s set in the present-day Bay Area, with the scientist living in the Berkeley hills.

Madeline H.D. Brown and Robert Parsons are perfectly cast as the scientist’s brilliant and beautiful artist wife, filling the formidable femme fatale role, and his jittery, brooding partner at the lab. Ryan O’Donnell seems an odd fit as the detective, more contemplative and soft-boiled than a man of action and more sarcastic than savvy, but Rick himself feels ill-suited for the detective’s role. All he does is talk and talk and talk about his method, which is less to find out the facts of a case than to dream up and different narratives of what may have happened and try them on for size. Again and again he talks about the story: “Yeah, it’s an interesting case all right, and I’ll crack it the way I always do. I sniff, listen, look, feel and taste everything I can until I have a good story.” Both of his client/interrogatees complain that he twists everything they say and uses it against them, fixating on meaningless details and turning them into something insidious, and indeed that seems to be pretty much what he does, with plenty of childish sarcasm along the way.

Michelle Haner’s staging keeps things appropriately moody, with Erich Blazeski’s lighting suggesting the shadow of prison bars on Brad Cooreman’s simple set of black-framed white screens and Randy Craig’s piano score reminiscent of a near-empty nightclub in the wee hours of the morning. Martha Stookey’s costumes let us know at a glace what archetypes we’re dealing with: a clingy red dress, a cheap suit and fedora, a white lab coat.

There’s not much actual dialogue in the play, although two competing accounts of the same conversation comes pretty close sometimes. Harder takes the conventions of the hardboiled detective genre—cynical first-person narration, florid similes—and weaves them into a kind of poetry that’s much more flowery than even the ripest specimens of pulp fiction: “It was a slam-dunk case on my favorite court… I like to watch the privileged few writhe in the muck of their own making.” “I pulled the trigger, but the trigger was rigged.” “Yeah, I get paid by the living, but I work for the dead.” There are plenty of honestly clever turns of phrase—“the missus of the missing,” “like a stepped-upon fig, I spill it all out”—and many more clichés that surely know what they are and aren’t the least bit sorry about it.

All the self-important talk about the detective’s job and piecing the story together gets tediously repetitive after a while, as do all the frequently reprised phrases like “ladies and gentlemen of my disbelieving jury.” The play’s only an hour and fifteen minutes but feels longer because of all the harping—the detective about how great he is and the clients about what a manipulative and thick-headed rat he is. And always, always the talk about the story and how compelling it is, which after a while feels like the playwright trying to convince us of something. But the funny thing is, the ending is really awfully clever, and all that gab helps set it up pretty effectively. It doesn’t make the dull parts seem better in retrospect—they were what they were—but a destination worth getting to does redeem the sometimes rough journey to get there.  The story Harder’s spinning may not always slay you, but at least it finishes you off well.

A Killer Story
Through May 18
Marsh Berkeley
2120 Allston Way
Berkeley, CA

Show #46 of 2013, attended May 4.


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