The cliche question, a juvenile puzzler, must be answered in the affirmative as we grow up and realize that the peculiarity of our dreams pushes mere color to the margins — though it's assuredly in the picture. In the dreams of film noir, however, black and white and gray inevitably rule the roost.
And part of the genius behind "Pulp," a two-act comic thriller by Joseph Zettelmaier that opened Thursday evening at the Phoenix Theatre, is how it looks. This production has you on the edge of your seat as much for its lighting and set design as its plot and characterization.
To start with, the montage of scenes from old movies that plays against the backdrop when there's no stage action places you in that black-and-white cinema world. On top of that, though, the light that slices sharp-angled across the sets, turning a kaleidoscope of conflicting brightness and gloom, may induce flashbacks in almost anyone who knows old movies.
|Cranston-Smith and Ellery believe they've found a clue.|
|Bad for each other, good for each other: Desiree St. Clair (Angela R. Plank) and Frank Ellery (Eric J. Olson).|
There's Bradley Rayburn (Joshua Coomer), a high-strung space cadet plying the sci-fi end of the trade; Walter Cranston-Smith (Michael Hosp), eagerly mining the rich vein of cloak-and-dagger heroism with alter-ego intensity; and R.A. Lyncroft (Ian Cruz), attempting self-therapy ambivalently through stomach-turning horror fiction.
But it's the fourth client of the late Bernard Walcott, the agent whose gruesome murder Ellery is hired to solve, who raises the temperature of the detective's dour, clay-cold professionalism. Romance specialist Desiree St. Clair (Angela R. Plank) is a dame with an agenda, a type so suitable to the genre that she has been mocked by no less a professional than the humorist S.J. Perelman. Skewering the pop culture of his day like nobody's business, Perelman caught the sex-role sentimentality of detective fiction in such pieces as "Farewell, My Lovely Appetizer": "Her eyes were tragic pools, a cenotaph to lost illusions."
|S.J. Perelman (1904-1979)|
Zettelmaier features Ellery's almost pathological eye for detail, a legacy of fictional detectives from Sherlock Holmes on down. Spotting a suspicious character two blocks away through that window, Perelman's gumshoe observes: "He wore a size seven dove-colored hat from Browning King, a tan Wilson Brothers shirt with pale-blue stripes, a J. Press foulard with a mixed red-and-white figure, dark-blue Interwoven socks, and an unshined pair of oxblood London Character shoes."
Stop me before I quote more! Whether or not he is acquainted with Perelman's faux-purple prose, Zettelmaier is clearly in touch with the passions and predilections of the pulp genre itself and the movies generated from its tawdry satisfactions. And he finds such humor in drawing upon the tortured imaginations and self-consciousness of literary hacks down the ages that all five characters float effervescently toward the show's shattering climax (kudos to sound designer Tom Horan). After that, there's a beautifully measured, wisecracking coda for Ellery and St. Clair, now lovers, which ends the show in perfect tribute to the genres that inspired it.
The performances are acutely perched upon the characters' genuine emotional needs and sometimes torturous back stories. Most poignant of them is Ellery's, bitterly recalling the turn of events that forced him into hard-luck detective work after prominence as a pulp-novel cover artist. That's where his fondness for color and fantasy had blossomed, some distance from the world drained of color, even if uncomfortably drenched in intrigue, that he now inhabits idiomatically in "Pulp."
[Production photos by Zach Rosing]