Friday, February 12, 2016

Dick shtick: Phoenix Theatre mounts a world premiere sending up pulp fiction and film noir

Do you dream in color?

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.
Jeffery Martin, as lighting designer and technical director, helps Bernie Killian's four-part unit set really pop in its lived-in, substantially furnished way. Killian mutes his palette to keep the audience's flashbacks to that black-and-white world intact. Both men visit conclusively the world of film-noir dreaming, and it's a wonderful playground for a story of murder, chicanery, and romantic obsession.

Bad for each other, good for each other: Desiree St. Clair (Angela R. Plank) and Frank Ellery (Eric J. Olson).
Bryan Fonseca directs this National New Play Network "Rolling World Premiere" production. Heading the cast is Eric J. Olson as a private investigator (PI, or, in outdated slang, a dick) out of the Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler mold. The persona taking the form of Frank Ellery in this play, like all the characters, simulates three-dimensionality, but only the way a hologram simulates human beings of substance. The other characters all toil in the pulp vineyards, their lives fully absorbed in the worlds they create.

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)
The temptation to quote Perelman is well-nigh irresistible, but it affords me the opportunity to praise Zettelmaier for being derivative in the best way. There is the offbeat, sophisticated comparison (Perelman here): "I waited the length of time it would take a small, not very bright boy to recite Ozymandias, and, inching carefully along the wall, took a quick gander out the window." This kind of thing can be found sparkling through the masters. In "The Big Sleep," Chandler describes an old man: "[A] few locks of dry white hair clung to his scalp, like wild flowers fighting for life on a bare rock."

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]