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For their 2010 stage adaptation of Double Indemnity, David Pichette and R. Hamilton Wright went back to James M. Cain’s Depression-era serialized novel about an insurance agent who plots to murder his lover’s husband, overstepping Billy Wilder’s iconic film noir. This costs their version the pulpy dialogue Raymond Chandler wrote for the movie, as well as the framing sequence and other significant alterations that gave the film a more more suspenseful narrative and a more sardonic sense of humor. Because the movie is more famous than the book, this based-on-the-book play’s restoration of Cain’s structure and ending has the effect of feeling, well, novel, even though the book came first. Got all that? This thorny dramaturgy gives Round House Theatre’s enjoyable if extraneous production what modest kick it has.
It might be easier to put aside our memories of Wllder’s 1944 film —or for that matter of Body Heat, Lawrence Kasdan’s superb 1981 remake—-if director Eleanor Holdridge weren’t trying so hard to make her play feel like a movie. Daniel Conway’s soft-focus black-and-white streetscapes stand in for the film’s wartime Los Angeles locations, and Matthew M. Nielson’s intrigue-stoking score is the next best thing to actually gassing the house with cigarette smoke. Lighting designer Nancy Schertler even splashes the shadows of venetian blinds across the stage at regular intervals.
The double-casting of everyone but the two leads keeps the company down to five actors. Marty Lodge has an appealing wearines as Huff, the insurance man who needs shockingly little persuasion to carry out his first (?) murder. Frankly, he looks a little long in the tooth to be bumping guys off out of lust for their wives, but you never know. His soliloquies about the sordidness of the insurance racket suggest maybe it’s the gambler’s thrill at beating the house that drives him to kill, but this angle isn’t developed enough to amount to anything more than a footnote.
As femme fatale Phyllis, Celeste Ciulla hits just the right note of socipathic artifice. She’s sexy, in an obvious, Jessica Rabbit sort of way (the scarlet dress costumer Kathleen Geldard puts her in doesn’t help matters, or rather does), but you’d have to be a bit crazy to fall for her. As both the doomed husband and Huff’s boss, Todd Scofield brings a likeable formality to his roles, especially once his nose for fraud and his affection for his friend Huff begin to rub up against one another. And just when Huff appears to have lowered himself into his own grave, there’s a twist that reminds us Huff and Phyllis’s hearts are far from the only repositories of wickedness in the world.
It isn’t boring. It just never adds up to anything more than a curious alternate version of a classic film that casts a long shadow, pun fully intended. As Huff tells Phyllis when he first meets her: “It’s hard to sell someone on something if they’re happy with what they’ve got.”
The play is on stage at Round House Theatre Bethesda to June 24.