Friday, October 31, 2014

101. BILLY & RAY (October 30, 2014)


A few seconds after the lights went up on BILLY & RAY, Mike Bencivegna’s flailing comedy about the writing of the 1944 film noir DOUBLE INDEMNITY, I was stunned to spot a face I’d first seen when I attended the University of Hawaii. Well, no, I wasn’t really seeing Bette Midler—who was an undergrad theatre major when I was in grad school—but her talented 28-year-old daughter, Sophie von Haselberg, a Yale Drama School graduate, making her New York debut. 

From left: Vincent Kartheiser, Sophie von Haselberg, Larry Pine. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
In the play, Ms. von Haselberg plays the thinly written supporting role of Helen Hernandez, secretary to the great script writer and director Billy Wilder, in a situation set in 1943 Hollywood, so she gets to wear the kind of classy World War II era clothing (courtesy of designer Michael Krass) with which her mom has sometimes been associated. Thus garbed, and with her blond hair perfectly coiffed in a period upsweep, she’s an astonishing replica of the young Divine Miss M, even her wryly knowing facial expressions and attitudes mirroring those of her famous mother. 

It was hard to take my eyes off her since, avatar of Bette as she is, she brings what little sparkle there is to the otherwise mundane proceedings. In fact, probably to make as much of her presence as possible, director Gary Marshall, who first staged the play with another Helen at his Falcon Theatre in Burbank, Cal., has added some cutesy business for her when Wilder asks her to act out some sexy dame behavior—including wiggling her “caboose”—as he and Chandler work on the script. (I’m privy to this, by the way, because my guest was Shaun O’Hagan, the talented actor who played Chandler in the West Coast production, which I didn’t see.)

Except for an insert that slides on from stage left to suggest the office of producer Joe Sistrom (Drew Gehling), all the action takes place in Wilder’s well-appointed Paramount bungalow, nicely designed by Charlie Corcoran, and well lit—including occasional noirish effects—by Russell H. Champa. His workspace resembles a living room, with venetian blinds (that get a lot of work) covering an upstage picture window looking out over the Paramount lot, where a nearby sign identifies Studio 19 (an in-joke, Shaun informed me, referring to the place that Mr. Marshall produced such famous TV sitcoms as “Happy Days”). At stage right is Helen’s domain, the reception room. 

Mr. Bencivegna’s play, which sets Act I from May to July 1943 and then covers July 1943 to July 1944 in Act II, uses the author’s careful research to recreate what might have happened when the pulp mystery writer, Raymond Chandler (Larry Pine), an alcoholic struggling to stay off the wagon, was hired through Joe Sistrom to collaborate with the Viennese-born Wilder (Vincent Kartheiser, of “Mad Men”) on DOUBLE INDEMNITY, the film version of James M. Cain’s popular murder mystery novella of that name.

Making a play about two writers, even ones whose mutual relations are like oil and water, is anything but easy, especially when the only way for anyone to appreciate all the developments, from plot points to casting, is to be familiar with what they’re working on. In last season’s ACT ONE, only one scene was about the collaboration of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman on their first play, but the painfully superficial BILLY & RAY fills two full hours with the on again, off again process; it’s enlivened mainly by the German-accented Wilder’s colorful arrogance in contrast to the dyspeptic Chandler, who’s in it mainly for the money and who downs a bolt of whiskey from a hidden bottle every time Wilder takes a pee break. 

If you don’t know DOUBLE INDEMNITY, which starred Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray. and Edward G. Robinson, and was nominated for seven Academy Awards, but won none, you’ll find this effort a slow slog. Aficionados may relish the Hollywood anecdotes and corny eureka! moments that arise in the writing (and producing) process of what for many is one of the greatest films of its genre; for the average theatergoer of a certain age, however, who may have seen the film once or twice, and who may not even hold it in the highest esteem (the more I see it the cheesier it looks), the dramatic stakes in what is already known to have turned out a success are rather low, almost nonexistent, in fact.

Aside  from Ms. von Haselberg’s presence, the performances from Mr. Pine, one of New York’s most dependable (and ubiquitous) actors, and Mr. Kartheiser, so memorable as the childishly acerbic Pete Campbell on “Mad Men,” never find the right balance or timing in their ping-pong repartee, a problem that has to be laid at Mr. Marshall’s feet. Mr. Kartheiser, wearing his hair with boyish bangs that make him look far too youthful (he’s actually around the same age as Wilder was in 1943-44), is suitably energetic but, with his phony accent, not in the least convincing as the genius whose later masterpieces included SUNSET BOULEVARD and SOME LIKE IT HOT. Mr. Pine, although considerably older than Chandler at this point in the writer’s life, actually bears a reasonable resemblance to him, but seems to be weary of the whole thing and not especially happy to be here; surprisingly, he also made several flubs the night I saw it.

The sole reason to visit this play is to see Bette Midler’s progeny at the start of her career (God, I hope she can sing!). But remember, it’s called BILLY & RAY, not BILLY, RAY, & HELEN.

Vineyard Theatre
108 E. 15th Street
Through November 23