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Double Play: Wild About Wilder—and Chandler, Too

What are the actuarial odds? A pair of plays may have theatergoers and film buffs seeing double. Within a week, by sheer coincidence, two different shows about writer/director Billy Wilder have opened on SoCal stages and at the heart of both is the creation of the 1944 film noir classic Double Indemnity, which Wilder helmed and co-wrote with that maestro of mysteries and crime fiction, Raymond Chandler.

Wilder, of course, was a European Jew and screenwriter who fled the Nazis during the 1930s and found refuge in Hollywood, where over the course of a stellar, eclectic 40 year career the transplant went on to co-write and helm many movies starring La-La-Land legends that helped make Hollywood’s Golden Age shine. They include: The 1943 World War II drama Five Graves to Cairo; 1945’s candid look at alcoholism, The Lost Weekend; an exploration of Tinseltown and fading stardom in 1950’s Sunset Boulevard; 1954’s sophisticated romcom Sabrina; the 1957 courtroom drama Witness for the Prosecution; 1959’s uproarious, cross-dressing comedy Some Like It Hot; complex comedies about sex such as 1960’s The Apartment; etc.

For this Austrian import, who was born in what became Polish turf and started out as a journalist, the written word remained paramount (even when he shot studio movies for Paramount Pictures), and Wilder collaborated closely with wordsmiths, notably Charles Brackett and I.A.L. Diamond. In May 1943 he commenced co-writing Double Indemnity with Raymond Chandler, who was selected because of his mastery of hardboiled detective stories. The American-British novelist began writing for pulp magazines in 1933 and by 1939 penned his first full length book, The Big Sleep, featuring private eye Philip Marlowe, who hewed closely to his own code of honor in a decidedly dishonorable, crime-ridden world. Humphrey Bogart starred in Sleep’s 1946 screen adaptation, although Double Indemnity was the first time Chandler worked on a screenplay per se.

Mike Bencivenga’s Billy & Ray, which is directed by Michael Matthews and being presented at the Laguna Playhouse, focuses on Chandler’s (Nick Searcy, whose screen credits include Fried Green Tomatoes and The Fugitive) rocky collaboration with Wilder (stage veteran Blake Ellis, who is far taller than the filmmaker was), while they transformed James M. Cain’s Indemnity novel into a script at Wilder’s Paramount lot office (with a superb, extremely realistic set – down to the overturned wastebasket and crumpled papers on the floor – designed by Stephen Gifford). If you think this review dragged until now, it’s probably because of all the exposition provided re: the principals, in order to fully understand the review and plays. Although this exposition is necessary for many theatergoers who know little if anything about the lead characters, it may be what bogged down Billy & Ray’s first act.

Their clashes, quirky personalities, drinking and so on are setup for about an hour, as the much put upon Paramount producer Joe Sistrom (Scott Lowell, who portrayed another historical figure – peace activist Rennie Davis – in a 1990 Chicago Conspiracy Trial production) shepherds the production through the treacherous shoals of the Hollywood studio system – not to mention the Wilder/Chandler skirmishes. The trio are overseen and held together by maternal Helen Hernandez (Joanna Strapp, who recently co-starred in Laguna Playhouse’s What I Wore and has acted in Showtime’s Ray Donovan series), the personal assistant of Wilder and Charles Brackett (their breakup led to Chandler’s hiring). Helen pours drinks, cajoles, types and, in general, smooths the combative characters’ ruffled feathers.

Be that as it may, during Act II, with most of the background material already out of the way, Billy & Ray really takes off and pays off. The acting is topnotch, as the writers with their conflicting personalities and competing visions and styles come to blows. There is much Sturm und Drang as the easily offended Chandler storms off the lot, etc., but as Double Indemnity goes on to score seven Academy Award nominations – including in the Best Picture, director and writing categories – the onetime rivals develop a grudging affection for one another. Having made his biggest hit so far in his adopted La-La-Land, a forgiving Wilder shrugs off their mortal combat, telling Chandler: “No spark, no sparkle.” Although the film noir masterpiece did not actually win any Oscars, it was the finest film Sistrom ever produced.

Bencivenga’s well-researched script based on historical fact is insightful. As Helen’s seemingly tossed off plot ideas wind up in the script, Sistrom encourages Wilder’s Gal Friday to pursue screenwriting (although it doesn’t appear that the real life Hernandez actually has any script credits per se). The well-acted dramedy is full of revelations – in particular, as to what caused the heavy-drinking title characters’ inner demons and how they channeled their traumas into their art.

A World War I veteran, Chandler seems to have sublimated his post traumatic stress disorder due to the horrors of trench warfare into the violence Marlowe and company witnessed and experienced in searing novels like 1953’s The Long Goodbye (which, coincidentally this reviewer completed reading for the first time just before attending Billy & Ray and which is full of autobiographical references plus anti-capitalist passages Karl Marx could have written if fiction – instead of political manifestos – were his literary forte).

The playwright also peels Wilder’s onion to reveal what was beneath his cynical, wisecracking façade. As Nazism conquers Europe unleashing the Holocaust, Wilder’s Jewish mother and family are ensnared by the genocide and sent to concentration camps. From afar, using his influence as a Hollywood hot shot with the U.S. State Department, Wilder tries keeping tabs on and possibly rescuing them. Once the Allies defeated Hitler’s hordes Wilder returned to Europe and went to the forced labor camps, desperately trying to locate his doomed relatives. I never knew this, but as Bencivenga indicates, the future director of the 1953 WWII POW drama Stalag 17 (starring his fellow Jew Otto Preminger as the camp’s German commandant) even made a documentary about the camps called Death Mills. The 1945 short shot at Bergen-Belsen is Wilder’s only nonfiction film.

This is the central point of The Stand-In, which is, rather remarkably being simultaneously (although totally separately) presented at L.A.’s Bootleg Theater. However, unlike its Laguna “counterpart,” the dueling Billy and Ray of The Stand-In are not that two-acter’s protagonists. While Wilder (Actors’ Gang alum Chris Schultz) plays an important role, the eponymous character is Kasia (Fayelyn Bilodeau), a 25-ish Polish refugee who, through a magical realist flourish, has escaped war-torn Europe to be washed ashore at SoCal, where she’s discovered and “rescued” by Max (Jeremy Mitchell).

Kasia is lucky to da max, as Max just so happens to be the director of photography for – you guessed it, film fans! – Double Indemnity (according to IMDB.com, John F. Seitz actually has the film’s cinematography credit). As Kasia’s stepping stone, Max provides the Polish newcomer with her entrée to Hollywood, where she starts out as Indemnity co-star Barbara Stanwyck’s (McCready Baker, who previously portrayed anarchist Emma Goldman in a one-woman show and appeared on TV in series such as Justified) stand in, as the aspiring actress starts developing a career in front of the cameras.

As I indicated, much of The Stand-In revolves around the plight of anti-Nazi European artists living in Hollywood. But not all of these exiles were Jews. Marlene Dietrich, who left Germany before Hitler became Germany’s chancellor in 1933, is a key character in this rather large cast, depicted by Alicia Hoge Adams (who co-wrote this excellent play with Peter Monro, who told me his grandmother survived the Shoah). Unfortunately, in portraying the fabled Marlene, Adams is at a disadvantage, as Dietrich was a reputed beauty, luminously styled and photographed onscreen by luminaries such as Josef von Sternberg, familiar to many movie fans. It’s hard to live up to a legend.

Marlene wears a very obvious blonde wig, which may deliberately be pointing out Tinseltown’s tacky obviousness and artifice. In any case, Dietrich – who is in her forties – is enamored of Kasia’s youth and while she’s trying on some of Dietrich’s duds, using her star power, Marlene, shall we say, pulls a “Trump” on the younger woman (although unlike the many allegations against The Donald, this is a consensual encounter). The fact that, in a double role, Adams also plays Kasia’s Polish mother bestows an oedipal tinge on the play.

Although his part as Chandler is much smaller than in Billy & Ray, Paul Dillon is outstanding as the liquor-ravaged word meister who also engages in pitched battles with Wilder in this production. Other standouts who etch their characterizations in stone include Stephen Simon as Indemnity co-star Fred MacMurray, whom he depicts as an affable dunce who could have acted in serious films like Wilder’s Indemnity and The Apartment, but “flubbed,” trading artistry for playing fluffy fare on the big and little screens (there’s a good inside joke in Billy & Ray about the sweater MacMurray wore in the long running, insipid TV sitcom My Three Sons). Michael Dunn likewise shows panache in a dual role as Indemnity co-star Edward G. Robinson and a megaphone touting assistant director.

The Stand-In is adroitly directed by Patrick Murphy, with well-done projections designed by Hana S. Kim on David Offner’s set. In the end, as Kasia reinvents herself in the land of make believe and is given a second chance by America and Hollywood, I felt as if she was standing in for all those victims of the Holocaust, who never had a chance to star in their own lives, let alone on the silver screen.

Both Wilder and Chandler productions have their merits. The main differences are that Billy & Ray has a third of the cast, highlights the relationship between the two titular talents and in terms of style, is far more conventionally theatrical in the sense that it rests upon dialogue and acting. On the other hand, The Stand-In is more cinematic, with many scenic changes, flashbacks and metaphors. And oh yes, Ellis’ tall Billy is bareheaded, while Schultz’s stoop shouldered Wildler always wears a hat.

Both productions historically overlap as they present many actual figures and events. Fascism, which deprived Wilder of his homeland and family, explains that cynicism Wilder’s oeuvre is known for. So, while we may be wild about Wilder, that social critic is not necessarily so wild about us – the human race.

BILLY & RAY is playing Wednesdays – Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., plus Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. and Sundays at 1:00 p.m., with additional performances on Thursdays Oct. 20 and 27 at 2:00 p.m. through Oct. 30 at the Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach, CA 92651. For more info: (949) 497-2787; www.LagunaPlayhouse.com.