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Double Indemnity

Presented by: ACT Theatre & San Jose Rep

The new theatrical adaptation of James M. Cain's classic noir tale of murder, infidelity and greed, “Double Indemnity” is more faithful to the original novel than to the celebrated 1944 film version. David Pichette and R. Hamilton Wright have scripted a play that is verbally lean and dramatically taut, expressed in the stylish language of the period and the genre. This should be a story filled with danger and intrigue, sexual attraction and manipulation, misconceived intentions and horrible consequences, a headlong plunge into events that spin out of control and ultimately cost everyone much, much more than they ever bargained for.

Although it is handsomely mounted, with an ingenious scenic design by Thomas Lynch and performed by a thoroughly competent cast, the direction by Kurt Beattie fails the actors and the story. The first act, especially, is flat and without the necessary tension and momentum needed to drive these characters to their passionate extremity. The second act is decidedly better, with a much stronger sense of the visceral, venal and seductive desires that ruin these lives. Unfortunately, it's all too late and even the strong finish cannot fully engage us because we have not been swept up by the early action, by the whirlpool of plotting and temptation that initiates the play.

The fault is not with the actors. John Bogar plays Walter Huff, the insurance agent who sets out to win the married temptress, Phyllis Nirlinger, by conspiring with her to murder her husband in just such a manner that they can collect on the double indemnity insurance policy that Huff has sold him. Bogar has the right blend of swagger and shallowness and just enough of an indication that this plan, like too many other plans in his life, will not work out as he intends. Carrie Paff plays the sultry Phyllis with cool sophistication but, for me at least, not enough of the erotic heat needed to ignite all these destructive fires. Her vocal delivery was also somehow too deliberate, too hollow for us to be fooled (like the others) into thinking there was not some hidden agenda from early on. As the victimized husband, Richard Ziman was a rather trusting, good hearted lump of a man, but he later returned to play Huff's boss at the insurance company, a man far more intelligent and insightful than anyone would have expected. I thought Ziman's performance in those two roles was the best work of the production.

As the younger, not so innocent daughter, Lola, Jessica Martin was attractive and energetic and we could feel from early on that she was the sort of woman who always has something going on, who will always be manipulating others to her own ends. Mark Anderson Phillips created three diverse characters: the boyfriend of Lola who will become entangled with all the others, the assistant to Huff's boss who is clearly not as smart or as wise, and Jackson, another ancillary character, with excellent technique and plenty of variety. 

There was certainly enough talent on stage for this to have been a gripping and smartly satisfying exercise in a great, popular literary style. This show should have been as much of a head-on train ride as the fatal ride that these characters take in the play. That metaphor of a hurtling vehicle contained by two parallel rails and left only at lethal expense requires us to be caught up in the acceleration of the action from curtain up to the final moment of the action. This production was simply too slow in pulling out of the station, too cautious and safe in its initiation. As a result it was interesting and sometimes even exciting, but never thrilling or invigorating or dangerous. A mild thriller is an oxymoron that describes this well-intentioned but unsuccessful adventure.

PICTURED ABOVE: Carrie Paff as Phyllis Nirlinger and John Bogar as Walter Huff in ACT's production of "Double Indemnity"
PHOTO BY: Chris Bennion

Written by:
Jerry Kraft

Added: October 30th 2011

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