KPBS AIRDATE: November 7, 1991
You like mysteries? Maybe you’re a long-time fan of Dashiell Hammett, who pioneered the hard-boiled detective novel. Maybe you’re a devotee of those film noir retellings of his “Maltese Falcon” and “The Thin Man,” coming this month to the Broadway stage — in musical version.
But you may not know that the real mystery is in Hammett’s own life. Why, you might want to know, if you’re a student of conundrums, after writing five of the finest novels in detective fiction — in just five years — did he lapse into a twenty-year non-productive phase from which he never emerged? Is it just coincidence that 1934, the year his 3-decade companion, Lillian Hellman, wrote her first play was the same year Hammett published his last novel? How much of an influence did his alcoholism, DTs and poor health play? How about his six-month imprisonment after refusing to name names for the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy hearings? And what about his unsettled relationship with his father?
Now these are good mystery questions which, unfortunately, “I Can’t Get Started” may pose but doesn’t answer. This first play by Irish theater director Declan Hughes has great intentions, but it’s sort of obsessed with a dramatic conceit: juxtaposing the real-life story with a never-written detective novel played out by Hammett-like creations: the tough gumshoe, the tougher brunette, the sexy blonde, etcetera.
The problems are with the play, but the production is superb. Director Glynn Bedington has an incredible feel for her cast and their characters. She neatly lays down the film noir acting style right next to naturalistic realism. It almost works. But we get caught up in a web of details that never unravels the real-life mystery.
Through it all, Shana Wride and Paul Eggington waltz and storm in and out, a delicious Hellman and Hammett, with all their wit, intelligence and warfare. We care much more about them than about that silly, surreal and convoluted murder mystery unfolding beside them, with its oblique parallels to the real-life story and its ultimate lack of satisfying answers.
But we do get a brief peek behind Hammett’s office blinds. And the technical work makes the view even more alluring. Especially Janice Benning’s gorgeous costumes, and Tom Mays’ shades-of-grey set and evocative lighting.
The title of the play refers to Hammett’s writer’s block, as well as to his other false starts __ his less-than-successful pursuits of love, political action, social reform and personal trust. The play itself may be, well, more of a slow start than a false one. Hughes seems to have something to say, and, when he’s less self-conscious, some interesting ways to say it. He may be someone to watch. And that’s always true of Ensemble Arts Theatre.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1991 Patté Productions Inc.