note: entire contents copyright 2012 by Sheila Barth
“Don’t get scared,” the kindly theater aide standing outside Stoneham Theatre warned us as we entered the theater.
“Don’t get scared,” echoed the helpful usher, leading us to our seats.
Knowing we’re seeing David Pichette and R. Hamilton Wright’s stage adaptation of “Double Indemnity,” Billy Wilder’s 1944 classic, suspenseful melodramatic film considered the standard for noir films, we braced for an afternoon of murder and mystery.
Even the stage, lined with designer Christopher Ostrom’s white movable panels, flashing the foreboding movie title, “Double Indemnity,” followed by a projected gloomy streetlight in the corner and background foggy wharf scene, add to pre-show pathos. Ostrom also artfully helms the show’s shadowy lighting and projection design, used frugally, but effectively.
A silhouetted, lone narrator, (Boston’s acclaimed Lewis D. Wheeler, son of the late, legendary David Wheeler), wearing the signature noir trenchcoat and hat, begins this tale of murder, sex, and suspense, upon which James M. Cain loosely based his stirring novella on an infamous 1927 trial in Queens, N.Y. Ruth Snyder was accused, found guilty and executed, for plotting her wealthy husband’s murder with her hapless lover, Judd Gray, to collect double (indemnity) on a big insurance claim issued on his death.
Handsome Wheeler is slick as narrator/self-assured insurance agent, Walter Huff, while Aimee Doherty as Phyllis Nirlinger, his alluring, sexy client and partner-in-crime, lacks the hard-edged coldness and raw sexiness her role as a serial killer demands.
When Huff meets the alluring Phyllis, his heart and testosterone pump at high speed. He instantly pounces on a plot, planning the perfect murder and insurance scam that’ll earn double payment if her husband dies in a train accident. With Huff’s 20 years’ experience as a top insurance salesman who’s seen it all, he has all the necessary statistics to pull it off.
The play’s action quickly shifts into high gear. Walter meets clandestinely with Phyllis and sets up appointments with her wealthy, petroleum/oil magnate husband, Herbert, to buy insurance. Walter’s helpful and friendly with Lola (Melis Aker), Nirlinger’s 19-year-old daughter, while carrying out their heinous plan to its disastrous ending.
Stoneham Artistic Director-Director Weylin Symes generally excels in creating creepy, shady, scary productions, but something’s wrong here. The audience is laughing instead of gasping at the duo’s evil scheme and actions.
And costume designer Rachel Padula-Schufelt’s theme of dressing the cast primarily in black, white, and gray is great, mimicking the thematic starkness of the black-and-white movie. But why does Lola mostly wear black bermuda-length shorts and polka-dotted blouse, and glamorous Phyllis wear the same short-sleeve white sweater and pencil-thin black skirt? Later, when Phyllis asks Walter if he likes the new sweater she’s wearing, saying she just knitted it, the audience laughed.
Also confusing is Boston headliner Sean McGuirk, playing two opposing roles - Herbert Nirlinger, and wise insurance boss, Keyes. He basically wears the same gray suit, save a hat or black glasses. McGuirk’s demeanor in both roles is similar, too - fast-talking and confident, barking orders and solving situations. On the other hand, Aker significantly changes her appearance in three roles: as Lola, middle-aged secretary Nettie, and a hospital nurse.
Versatile Michael Underhill does, too, as Lola’s sleazy, unfaithful boyfriend, Nino, and lesser characters, Jackson and Norton.
BOX INFO: New England premiere of two-act drama, adapted by David Pichette and R. Hamilton Wright, appearing through Nov. 4 at Stoneham Theatre, 395 Main St., Stoneham: Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 3,8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets,$48,$44; seniors, $42,$40. Call the Box Office at 781-279-2200 or visit www.stonehamtheatre.org.