While Dog Days Theatre began its inaugural summer season with a comedy—traditionally popular during the hot months—there’s something about these sweltering August days that also works well with noir. Hence the theater’s second production: David Pichette and R. Hamilton Wright’s adaptation of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity.
After all, even though Cain’s characters commit their evil deeds in California, not Florida, there’s certainly steamy weather going on internally. Lust, love, greed, murder, betrayal—Cain’s story has all that and more, and it’s perversely fun to watch it all unfold.
Fans of the classic 1944 film version of the tale (itself loosely based on a true 1920s murder case) may miss some of the snappy dialogue (courtesy of Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler) they remember, as well as the faster pacing. The stage version, directed by Greg Leaming and Jesse Jou, is intentionally more lingering in tempo, more gradual in its approach. And the play hews closer to Cain’s original, especially with its ending, than the movie.
But much of the basic plot remains the same. Insurance agent Walter Huff (Eric Meixelsperger), basically decent but bored with his life and rather easily seduced, meets up with female fatale Phyllis Nirlinger (that’s how the production spells her name, although it was Nirdlinger in the book), played by Katie Cunningham. He’s trying to get her husband Herbert (Don Walker) to update his insurance payments; she’s interested in getting a new accident policy on hubby without his knowing it, which can only mean one thing: She wants to bump him off.
But doing it on her own, Huff realizes, she will inevitably get caught, whereas with his professional knowledge, he can help her figure out how to get away with it. The temptation of pulling off a perfect murder, plus Phyllis’ sexual attraction, lures him into the crime—even though they both have from the outset, as the audience does, a sense of impending doom.
That sense is aided by the scenic design by Steven Kemp, which consists of looming, tall beams crossed by steel bars and, at times, the railing of a ship which will play an important role later on. Coupled with ominous, often dissonant sound design by Rew Tippin, the shadows of the set accentuate the necessary noir mood.
As Huff, Meixelsperger speaks to us directly at times, narrating his inner thoughts, and although he's probably a little young to play a seasoned insurance man, his mix of cynicism and wishfulness (especially as he gets to know Phyllis’ innocent stepdaughter, Lola, played by Sara Linares) convinces. Cunningham has to convey not only Phyllis’ duplicity but also walk a fine line when it comes to portraying her mental instability and her fascination with death; it’s hard to walk in the footsteps of Barbara Stanwyck, but Cunningham is always watchable.
Longtime Asolo Rep actor Douglas Jones makes a welcome return to the stage as Keyes, the gruff, rumpled insurance investigator who can’t let go of a case, and Linares, Walker, and Wes Tolman and Mike Perez in smaller but still pivotal roles all work effectively to round out the character list of a noir scenario. The stage production may not have quite the punch or polish of a film ingrained in cinema lovers’ memories, but it’s still involving.
Double Indemnity continues through Aug. 27 in the Cook Theatre. For tickets call 351-8000 or visit asolorep.org.