'Billy & Ray' in Laguna goes behind the scenes of the iconic film 'Double Indemnity'

The 1943 Academy Award-nominated film “Double Indemnity” made a groundbreaking impact on censorship in the American film industry with its graphic themes of scamming, murder and adultery. But what was happening behind the scenes between the film’s writers is actually a revolutionary – and entertaining – story in itself.

The off-Broadway play “Billy and Ray” tells the story of the collaboration between the film’s real-life co-authors and Hollywood legends, director Billy Wilder and crime novelist Raymond Chandler, and their dysfunctional relationship that led to the iconic film’s creation. The Laguna Playhouse opened its new season with an adaptation of the play, directed by Michael Matthews, with previews running through Saturday and regular performances beginning Sunday through Oct. 30.

The original drama-comedy was directed and produced by the late Garry Marshall, who wrote, directed and produced numerous Hollywood blockbusters, including “Pretty Woman” and “Beaches.” As a fan of Wilder’s usage of shadow, light and storytelling, Matthews said he was excited to direct the play.

“I loved how there were these two men who could not be more opposites, but they managed to create something so important to American cinema as we know it,” said Matthews, “When the two of them were actually aligned, it was like the stars aligned, and they were able to create something so fantastically amazing.”

Written by Mike Bencivenga, the play stars Nick Searcy as Ray Chandler, Blake Ellis as Billy Wilder, Scott Lowell as Paramount producer Joe Sistrom and Joanna Strapp as Wilder’s secretary Helen Hernandez.

Searcy will make his Laguna Playhouse debut and a return to the theater stage after 25 years of film and television acting (“Justified,” “American Gothic”). As a longtime friend of playwright Bencivenga, he said taking on the role of Chandler has been an honor.

“Mike is one of my oldest and dearest friends, so I’ve known about this play since the time he wrote it. I did the first public reading on the West Coast and fell in love with the role, and always wanted to do it,” Searcy said. “The easy part of being Ray is being funny, because that comes natural to me. The hard part is getting the drama right, but Blake (Billy) and I have worked well and had fun together doing it.”

The production discusses the iconic film’s plot of murder and sexual subtleties, Chandler and Wilder’s backgrounds as writers and their brutal love-hate relationship in the scriptwriting process, the complications of casting the film’s leads and how they worked around the film industry’s strict censorship code to create the film.

Fans of “Double Indemnity” will be able to recognize different parts in the play that shed light on how the writers came up with the idea in the film’s script, Matthews said.

“If you love the movie then it’s so amazing, because you could actually see how they came up with the moments in the movie; you get to see it played out before your eyes,” said Matthews, “It’s all incredibly historical, with two polar opposites who come together and cause some very funny things to happen.”

Matthews and scenic designer Stephen Gifford researched real photographs, as well as interviewed people who had real information or photographs from the era, to model the set to look exactly like Wilder’s office:

“Right down to the blinds, to the couch, to the exact layout of how the office really was. The audience is going to see an authentic view of how the office was in a very theatrical form. It was Life magazine that came in and shot different pictures of the writers in action, which are the only pictures available of Helen,” Matthews said. “It shows her office where they are gathered around looking at the script, and it shows Billy pacing with his cane and as he’s pacing, you could see the different parts of the office. So we found props and designed the office according to what we could see in the photos.”

Both Matthews and Searcy agreed that audience members don’t not have to be fans of Wilder and Chandler, nor do they need to know the film to enjoy the play. Matthews added that the production has an underlining message that everyone will relate to.

“With these great egos, there still is humanity; there is still care for one another, even though they did not talk again after the movie was made,” said Matthews, “But in order for them to move forward and complete what needed to be completed, they had to have an understanding of eachother. Great lessons are to be learned here for everyone who sees it.”

Contact the writer: jmoe@ocregister.com