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Murder and revenge are oft served up by the Washington Shakespeare Company, but seldom in a manner that blends elements of The Sopranos, Rear Window, and Home Improvement.
Chris Stezin’s A Walk Across the Rooftops—a stage homage to film noir, with the requisite murky atmospherics, shady characters, and narrative convolutions—is roughly as ambitious as it is flawed in WSC’s world premiere. The second Stezin script to make its debut since the start of 2003 (his comedy What Dogs Do was performed by the Charter Theatre last month), Rooftops has been workshopped and polished over the past year but still seems a cleverly plotted work in progress. Diffuse and in need of pruning, it feels at once overlong and underwritten as it tells of score-settling gone wrong and innocents betrayed by mere proximity to bad guys.
When Nick (Daniel Ladmirault) emerges without a scratch from a construction-site fall that should have killed him, he figures he’s been left alive to finish family business. When he was a little boy, his father was the driver in an auto accident that killed one of his playmates, the son of a seedy neighbor named Defranco (Dave Wright). Though his dad went to the wake, hoping to mourn with the Defranco family, he was rebuffed and soon wound up dead.
Nick, having grown up in a neighborhood where both tragedies were common knowledge, has lived quietly with pain and shame. But, revenge being a dish best served cold, he tells an appalled but willing-to-remain-silent friend named Ben (also played by Wright) of a plan to avenge his father’s death by killing Defranco, citing his own lucky break as evidence that he’s meant to do so.
So far so shady. Also on hand are an unscrupulous businessman, who is working a deal with Defranco, and the businessman’s wife, who is fooling around with one of her husband’s associates. Their lives are intertwined with those of a former professor, who’s had amorous misadventures of his own. And rounding out the ensemble are a couple on a nearby rooftop (Patricia Howard and Carlos Bustamante), who don’t appear to know each other but certainly become acquainted while watching a murder unfold below. “Maybe we came up here to find out why we came up here,” says one. Well, yes—maybe.
All of these characters are unveiled in a shadowy, extenuated opening sequence in which noirish music backs a voice-over expressing Nick’s thoughts as he drives through the night with a woman slumped in the seat beside him. In what amounts to an eveninglong flashback, we learn of signed contracts that disappeared, oaths that were muttered and shouted, and innumerable other details of varying significance and interest. Characters smoke; gunshots echo hollowly as distanced, filmlike sound effects. The company, in short, has done its homework.
What it hasn’t done is give the evening much narrative oomph or character. The sense of urgency that ought to propel events is entirely absent, and although motivations get clarified and plot points eventually fall into line, it’s hard to care much about either the protagonists or their fates.
Part of the problem is physical. An off-night (Sunday through Wednesday) attraction, Rooftops is being performed on an Irish pub set designed for the Keegan Theatre’s The Hostage, and though director LB Hamilton has been resourceful about utilizing its two levels, she and her designers could have developed a far more appropriate atmosphere had they had a setting of their own. The piece practically screams for expressionistic lighting and shades of gray, but the production has had to settle for realistic browns and a wash of light in which cigarette smoke simply disappears, rather than curling suggestively above characters’ heads.
The larger problem, however, lies in the performance style adopted by the company. Even when film-noir dialogue isn’t Philip Marlowe-snappy, it’s never simply conversational. Infused with ambiguity, paranoia, and cynicism, it tends to be economical and fiercely stylized, suggesting that much more is being left unsaid than is actually uttered in front of the camera. Stage-noir dialogue, wedded to a form that’s more verbal, needs to be even more heightened. But while Stezin’s lines have a certain rhythmic flair, they’re mostly being delivered at the Clark Street Playhouse with naturalistic flatness. Adam K. Hamilton’s moody score does what it can to provide musical support for especially dramatic passages, but the composer’s bag of tricks is not bottomless, and the evening ends up feeling bland—a mere stroll across the rooftops when what’s needed is something brisker and more bracing. CP