Moody lighting and flickering shadows immediately set the tone for a stylish evening of film noir in "Double Indemnity," the '40s potboiler on stage at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis through April 7.
With an atmospheric, sparse set using only black, white and shades of gray to ultimate effect, this production slickly snares us into a sinister murder plot that first captivated audiences in the 1944 classic film, which was adapted from James M. Cain's novel. This 95-minute adaptation, first staged in Seattle last year, is lovingly crafted by David Pichette and R. Hamilton Wright, and nearly faithful to the source.
Director Michael Evan Haney emphasizes the essential elements of the genre in degrees. The story begins in flashback as Walter Huff, a cynical insurance salesman, recounts how his life spun out of control and he was duped into killing. His fatal attraction -- an alluring femme fatale, of course -- is a tousle-haired vixen who drew this hapless sap into a dark web of intrigue.
This timeless tale takes us back to an era where the moral road was a stricter strip of black-and-white: good on one side, bad on the other. The Rep's version doesn't succumb to the parody aspect of film noir, which is so easy to fall into after decades of stylized crime drama cliches -- although there are a few humorous moments that cut the tension.
Based on a true case in Queens, New York, "Double Indemnity" focuses on a regular guy selling an automobile insurance policy to a successful businessman, Herbert Nirlinger. His wife, the alluring Phyllis, is too tempting, and she plays Huff like a violin.
The cast etches their characters with familiar hues, not veering from the templates set forth 70 years ago. David Christopher Wells may appear a wee bit young for the main role, but he perfectly calibrates his delivery to suit the dialogue demands. Gardner Reed doesn't play black-hearted Phyllis as outright devious, but there is reason to believe all's not well. It's compelling to watch them try to get away with murder.
In supporting roles, Kevin Cutts is a demanding Herbert, while Joy Farmer-Clary is very sympathetic as stepdaughter Lola. Michael Sean McGuinness wisely stays away from the Edward G. Robinson comparisons as bossman Keyes, and his relentless dismantling of the case is impressive.
The true stars, however, are James Sale's stunning lighting design and Paul Shortt's flawless scenic design, which efficiently changes from the Nirlinger home to insurance office to Huff's apartment to train to ship. Costume designer David Kay Mickelsen's palette of black, white and gray adds so much to each character as well.
The devil's in the details, and The Rep has a doozy on its hands.
At a glance
What: "Double Indemnity"
Who: Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
When: through April 7; Tuesdays at 7 p.m.; Wednesdays-Fridays 8 p.m.; selected Wednesdays at 1:30 p.m.; Saturdays 5 p.m.; selected Saturdays 9 p.m.; Sundays 2 p.m.; selected Sundays 7 p.m.
Where: Browning Mainstage at the Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves
Running time: One hour, 35 minutes, performed without an intermission.
Recommended for grades 9 and up (ages 14 and up).
Tickets: Prices vary with performances. Order online at www.repstl.org/season/alltickets/; go to the box office; or call 1-314-968-4925.