Tough guys. Dames. Desperation. Shadows. Cynical narration. Sexual motivation. The Cincinnati Playhouse’s production of Double Indemnity has all the requisite elements of film noir. Best known as a classic film from that hardboiled genre, the story of murder and passion originated in a 1936 novel by James M. Cain, and that’s the source used by writers David Pichette and R. Hamilton for their script.
Walter Huff (David Christopher Wells) is a disillusioned insurance salesman. He hooks up with Phyllis Nirlinger (Gardner Reed), a sultry blonde who wants her cantankerous husband, Herbert (Kevin Cutts), dead. They concoct a complex scenario for Herbert’s demise in a fall from a train, since Huff’s company will pay a “double indemnity” for such an accident.
But things unravel when Huff’s irascible boss Barton Keyes (Michael Sean McGuinness’s exasperated performance is a standout) sorts out the elements, and Huff is distracted by Phyllis’s earnestly chatty stepdaughter Lola (Joy Farmer-Clary). As they say, murder will out.
Director Michael Evan Haney, a master of styles and genres, juggles the elements for thrills and humor. Haney’s production is creatively supported by Paul Shortt’s pair of roundtables, segregated by stucco walls that revolve from scene to scene in the manner of a cinematic wipe, the actors stepping quickly from office to living room, from car to train, using deceptively simple but carefully planned choreography to sustain momentum. James Sale’s lighting design constantly sets the mood with iconic patterns of Venetian blinds and stark shadows. David Kay Mickelsen’s costumes are in shades of black, grey and white — with a startling blast of color for the finale. It’s brilliantly conceived.
Despite the clever, stylish work by actors, director and designers, the script has leaden stretches. It’s tough to balance storytelling and playfulness with the genre, especially when there’s too much talking. But such moments quickly dissipate, like the evocative mist and shadows of Los Angeles in the 1940s.
DOUBLE INDEMNITY, presented by the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, continues through May 18. Tickets: cincyplay.com.