It's hate at first sight for 'Billy & Ray'

It's hate at first sight for 'Billy & Ray'

One look at “Billy & Ray” and you’ll marvel that the 1944 thriller “Double Indemnity” was even made, let alone that it set trends in the film noir genre and emerged as a landmark in the battle against Hollywood censorship.

That’s because the movie’s key creators, director Billy Wilder and writer Raymond Chandler, were about as compatible as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

Laguna Playhouse’s staging of Mike Bencivenga’s 2014 comedy gives us a diverting view of the continuous clashes of two men who couldn’t be more unalike – yet their complementary talents, as the play depicts, were vital to the creation of “Indemnity’s” innovative final script.

Stephen Gifford’s set design beautifully evokes the look and feel of the mid-’40s, while director Michael Matthews and sound designer Juan Sanson’s heightened between-scene music mirrors not just the kind of score used in thrillers like “Double Indemnity,” but the testy, sturm-und-drang relationship of the two men who created that now-classic movie.

Things start off with a bang when we realize Wilder (an effervescent Blake Ellis) has just alienated his longtime screenwriting collaborator, Charles Brackett, with Brackett, in a final act of pique, trashing the office he and Wilder share at Paramount Studios.

Wilder and producer Joe Sistrom (Scott Lowell) now have two problems: The first is finding someone to replace Brackett in working with Wilder to turn the literary hit “Double Indemnity” into a film.

The second is creating the script: James M. Cain’s 1943 novella was widely regarded as “unfilmable” under restrictions of the Hollywood production code, which barred showing anything indecent or sordid – like adultery or murder for money, major elements of “Indemnity.”

Enter mystery novelist Chandler (Nick Searcy), whose expertise in portraying the “hard-boiled” style they seek and dismissal of Cain’s book as “tasteless tripe” convince Wilder and Sistrom he’s perfect for the job.

Chandler has never written a screenplay, and he’s a solitary sort who works alone and is unreceptive to input or ideas from others, but the duo persist.

The real stumbling blocks are both stylistic and substantive: Wilder is impish and playful and loves to drink while working; Chandler, about a generation older, is sober – literally: He purports to abstain from booze, and his everyday mien is a scowl.

“Billy & Ray” asks whether this odd couple can surmount their ongoing, personality-driven disagreements over how to adapt the book.

In Matthews’ expert hand, the play is fast-paced and breezy. The repeated clashes play out for big laughs, with Wilder’s put-upon secretary Helen (Joanna Strapp) and Lowell’s harried Sistrom caught in the switches.

It’s a tried-and-true dynamic, the squaring off opposites – Wilder is like an exuberant teen to Chandler’s stuffy, prissy high school teacher. Whether exaggerated or accurate, the contrast of a hyperactive style and a staid one is reliably mirthful.

Though he doesn’t much resemble the short, stout, bespectacled Wilder, Ellis adds zing to his lines with his pungent Austrian-inflected sprech, and his glowing face and boyish gleam in his eye portray an audacious, clownish, fun-loving creative dervish who seems to thrive on chaos and whom Chandler finds obnoxious.

Searcy is that irresistible force’s immovable object: Not just stolid, dull and almost colorless, but downright dour and stony. Taking in Wilder’s antics, his Chandler shows distaste and disgust on his face; at times, he resembles Jack Benny doing a slow burn.

Aside from the humor generated by tension and friction, the question is whether “Billy & Ray” moves beyond its sitcom-like premise and style to transport its quarrelsome duo past their bickering and into some sort of actual friendship (Chandler takes offense at Wilder’s calling him Ray: “Only my friends call me Ray.”)

The answer is mixed. Bencivenga shows the men finding ways to work, co-exist and even having some fun doing so, and comes close to that defining moment when something inside each clicks and they bond – but each time, he edges away from it.

That’s a real, cliché-avoiding strength of the script, but it also deprives us of seeing an arc being traced and resolved, the sense of satisfaction, even closure, that comes from seeing two opponents coming to terms.

That places “Billy & Ray” in the less rarified category of the slickly professional crowd-pleaser – nothing earthshaking, but certainly well worth our time and interest, and good for many well-earned laughs.

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