Review: Play reveals tense birth of a classic film
NEW YORK (AP) — Two tough guys, one tough script and their Herculean team effort to cram steamy sex and violence into a strictly-censored Hollywood studio film is the subject of Mike Bencivenga’s fascinating play “Billy & Ray.”
A smartly humorous, suspenseful production, featuring Vincent Kartheiser (of TV’s “Mad Men”) as legendary Hollywood writer and director Billy Wilder, and Broadway veteran Larry Pine as hardboiled detective novelist Raymond Chandler, opened Monday night off-Broadway in its New York premiere at the Vineyard Theatre.
Kartheiser sports an Austrian accent that would veer into shtick if he wasn’t so adept at bringing out an impish, confident side to his energetic portrayal of Wilder. His likable performance is well-matched by Pine’s grumpy, stubborn enactment of a secretly alcoholic, down-on-his-luck yet still pedantic Chandler.
Bencivenga has provided both characters with plenty of snappy lines as he carefully highlights the development of complex characters and seminal scenes from what would become the first American film noir, “Double Indemnity.” The 1944 film starred Fred MacMurray as an insurances salesman, Barbara Stanwyck as a housewife who wishes her husband were dead, and Edward G. Robinson as an insurance claims adjuster.
The womanizing Wilder declares, “People will have sympathy for Phyllis because she’s fed up with her husband and wants to kill him. Anybody who’s been married will understand that.”
As crisply directed by Garry Marshall, creator of TV comedies including “Happy Days” and “The Odd Couple,” the unlikely partners initially fight over every word as they attempt to make a classy script out of a trashy James M. Cain novel the studio has procured.
Their tantrums and spats are cautiously mediated by Helen (Sophie von Haselberg, a sassy delight), Wilder’s perky secretary and office bartender. Drew Gehling is the ultimate referee as an up-and-coming studio executive who despairingly sees his career rise and fall along with Chandler and Wilder’s fluctuating productivity.
Casual references to real Hollywood stars of the era lend spice to the conversations. The detailed period set depicting Wilder’s Paramount Studio office is a triumph by Charlie Corcoran, and snazzy costumes by Michael Krass add retro flair to the action. Chandler’s pants are nearly up to his armpits before he smartens his wardrobe after some studio paychecks.
Turning an explicit pulp novel into a classically suggestive film was no mean feat. This tense dramatization of the writers’ edgy partnership is so revealing you’ll probably want to stream the movie soon afterward, to revisit the innovative ways Wilder and Chandler got around the puritanical censors.