KPBS AIRDATE: ???
Welcome to Simile Land. That’s the place where writer Raymond Chandler sort of lived, when he wasn’t in La Jolla, where he spent his last 13 years. His purple prose and hard-boiled plots have enchanted certain readers and moviegoers for years. Why, friends of the La Jolla Library just finished their third International Imitation Raymond Chandler Writing Contest.
Now along comes playwright John William See, with “The Lady Cries Murder,” currently performed by the Naked Theatre Club at the Marquis Public Theatre. Holy plot contrivance, Batman. Holy Chandler imitation. Holy smoke machine. This is a mishmash of a production if I ever saw one.
The first problem is the play. Not only the language is overdone. There’s absolutely no hint of subtlety here, and no cleverness in the twists of plot and twisted characters. There are zillions of little references and reminiscences to Chandler and his pulp detective confreres, but so what? Is the intention a few in-jokes? Is there a story worth telling here? Does anybody REALLY know what time it is?? In the end, we don’t really care whodunit or why.
See, there’s rich writer Charles Sartone, who’s really big thug Jasper Grunt, who also appears as a character in Sartone’s we’re-watching-it-being-written radio play, “The Lady Cries Murder.”
Raymond Chandler also appears in the radio play, complaining that the whole plot is a rip-off of his work. When Chandler is hit with his own brand of convoluted prose, he doesn’t even understand it. He’s also accused of stealing from Dashiell Hammett and Earle Stanley Gardner, producing writing that’s “elaborate, messy and absolutely devoid of humor.” Chandler pouts and grouses: “Why don’t people see the strong element of burlesque in my writing?” Now that’s kinda funny. But you don’t need two hours for two good lines.
The problem is that neither playwright See nor director Christopher R had a clear vision of what they wanted to do or where they wanted it to go with it. So everything’s all over the place. Literally speaking, the scene keeps changing from New York to San Francisco to L.A. to Katmandu.
The Gumshoe Philip Diamond, accused of undergoing a second nervous breakdown, can’t seem to keep track of where he is or who he’s bedding down with. There’s Marsha Shorthand, who’s really Vivian Reagan, and there’s Shanghai Sue, who has a silly Chinese accent but is played by a black actress. She sounds like a tongue-tied Barbara Walters, talking about a “jerous boyfriend” and a “good-rookin’ detective.” It’s all too silly — and not silly enough.
You have several choices when doing spoofs and knock-offs. Play them very small or very large. Christopher R can’t decide which way to go. So there’s both under- and over-acting, deadpan and campiness, and the whole just doesn’t fit together.
The performances themselves are spotty as well. Mark Taylor is sometimes endearing, sometimes annoying as gumshoe Diamond. Ed Budzyna’s Chandler and Allen Bernstein’s various characters are basically character-less. Jeff Jones, Darren Press and Ski Mark Ford play their roles broadly, aiming for a laugh, which is okay but sometimes intrusive, and it makes them stand out far too much from the other ten actors. As for the women, Robin Eisen is weak but pretty, Dochia Knox is mis-cast, and Jill Drexler and Laurie Lehmann-Grey are fine.
The best job is done by Evergreen Nurseries, which makes Ski Mark Ford’s wonderfully multi-leveled set come alive with plants. The lighting and sound follow the Three Bears Approach of the rest of the production: sometimes too much, sometimes too little, and occasionally, just right.
A play and a production need not have a moral, but they ought to have a point.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1991 Patté Productions Inc.