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A CurtainUp Review
Billy & Ray
By Elyse Sommer
Like Ron Hutchinson's Moonlight and Magnolia about the making of Gone With the Wind, Billy & Ray gives us an inside seat at the birthing of another classic film. That film, Double Indemnity, trailblazed the film noir genre and broke the stranglehold of the era's morality guardian, the Hays office. The delivery room where Biencivenga's clever script unfolds is the well-appointed office of writer/director Billy Wilder.
The conflicts from which the play derives its dramatic spin are two-fold: 1. Wilder's volatile collaboration with Charles Brackett finally explodes. With Brackett's exit, the Austrian born Wilder needs a new writing partner since he's not comfortable enough in his adopted country's language to write a screenplay on his own. 2. The partner his producer and secretary come up with is Raymond Chandler (the creator of gumshoe Phillip Marlowe), who when the play begins in 1943 is still cranking out his hard-boiled mysteries for a low-paying magazine. Given Wilder's flamboyant personality and Chandler's dour, distinctly un-Hollywood persona, it's a marriage made in Hell.
Vast personal differences make their work sessions something of a battle zone &mdash Wilder is an exuberant personality who drinks and womanizes constantly, Chandler is a man of few words, solidly married and determinedly sober. But despite their incompatible personalities, the two men manage to come up with a way to create something original from James Cain's crowd pleasingly sleazy serialized novella and in doing so circumvent the Hays Office's moralists who declared Cain's story to be too immoral to be filmable.
Fortunately the playwright, who is himself a seasoned screenwriter, and veteran Hollywood director Garry Marshall have effectively made this more than just two guys hammering a problematic story into a ground breaking film. Besides creating a colorful and often funny picture of this early 40s film era, Bencivenga added texture and depth to his portrait of his title characters.
Beneath Wilder's seemingly carefree, high liver there's a Jewish expat worrying about his family that's gone missing in Nazi occupied Austria. There's also a hint that the constant adulteries are a release from the pain of losing a child. As for the older Chandler, his first World War experience also brings its own subtext to his crankiness and self-righteous sobriety. (Old-time film buffs, will see seeds another famous Wilder film to-come, The Lost Weekend).
Naturally this story needs a dynamic Billy and an actor to convincingly play Chandler as an equally watchable straight man. Vincent Kartheiser, Mad Men's not especially colorful or likeable Pete Campbell, turns out to be a delightfully lively and charming Billy. If his accent hardly true-blue Austrian true-blue German, despite dialect coach Stephen Gabis's coaching. Could Gabis have been instructed to aim for cartoonishness rather than authenticity? As for Raymond Chandler, I can't think of a more perfect choice than Larry Pine. He gives vivid life to the grouchy Hollywood misfit
To keep things lively, there are two other nicely defined and appealing characters. Drew Gehlig captures the enthusiasm and angst of Joe Sistrom, the fresh from New York producer whose Hollywood career depends on his getting the writers to deliver the script on time and to the satisfaction of the Hays Office. Sophie Von Haselberg is terrific as Helen, the de rigueur secretary, who true to the era's Girl Friday types not only types and fields telephone calls but mixes and serves drinks. If the face looks familiar, it's because she's the spitting image of her mom, Bette Midler. Michael Krass has provided Von Haselberg with so many costume changes that they almost work like additional sets. The program doesn't list any hair and wig designer, but Helen's pompadour and neckline hair roll are period perfect.
The first class scenic design by Charlie Corcoran occasionally slides from Wilder's spacious office — complete with effectively used bathroom and Helen's anteroom — occasionally slides out Sistrom's tiny office which smartly features a Ninotchka poster (Wilder's first Hollywood hit).
While all those costume changes for Helen are fun, they do seem to underscore the sense that the production has been padded to feel more substantial. A better choice would have been to tighten things up so that the play could run its course in 90 minutes without an intermission.
The play provides all you need to know to follow and enjoy this inside look at an Odd Couple creative collaboration. However, that's not to say, that you might not want to enrich the experience by a first-hand familiarity with Double Indemnity. With that in mind, here's a link in case to the movie at You Tube, which also has lots of features about Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler: Double Indemnity on You Tube