Insurance fraud, complete with actuary tables and standardized policy forms, rarely makes for compelling drama. But Double Indemnity, a sinister and atmospheric world premiere adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1930s noir thriller, proves that life insurance can be a dark, sexy, deadly business.
In what the show's playwrights/adaptors and perennial favorites of the Seattle theater scene, David Pichette and R. Hamilton Wright, describe as “the dusty, amoral Los Angeles of the 1930s,” insurance salesman Walter Huff (John Bogar) is driven by an unshakable suspicion that a significant number of the policies he has sold over the years have been fraudulently paid out. The house that burned down just when it was worth more as a pile of ashes, the truck that mysteriously self-destructed — these were not acts of God. They were cunning scams.
Huff is a classic noir anti-hero looking for trouble, and he finds it. Or rather, it finds him in the form of a slinky, seductive blond coyly seeking a life insurance policy for her wealthy husband. Described as an Irrawaddy cobra and clad in a silky green pantsuit as she slowly encircles Huff, Phyllis Nirlinger (Carrie Paff) has a lethal plan in mind. And in the first of many adroit plot twists, Huff recognizes it immediately. She wants to take out an enormous policy on her husband, then kill him. Phyllis is exactly the person that Huff has been waiting for.
“You seem to think that because I called you on it, you’re not going to do it. But you are going to do it. And I’m going to help you,” he says. After watching so many people gamble on insurance policies and win, he yearns to game the system himself. “You think I’m nuts? You spend 15 years in the insurance industry,” he says.
Bogar’s voice is as rich as hot buttered rum, as he narrates his downward spiral into a murder scheme fueled by lust and greed, and marked by more than a hint of madness. It’s complicated, but Pichette and Wright lay it out brilliantly in the action and dialogue, aided by the nimble direction of ACT’s Artistic Director Kurt Beattie. The play takes off like a freight train at this point, transforming from a brooding period piece into a high-intensity thriller that elicits more than a few gasps from the audience over the course of its two acts.
Overrun by amoral, solipsistic creatures from L.A.’s shadowy underbelly, Double Indemnity dares the audience to pass judgment on its population of killers for fun and for profit, serial adulterers and seedy corporate con artists. Phyllis’ justification for why her husband deserves to die is her sole attempt at empathy, and it is chilling. “He’s not happy. He’ll be better off,” she says with a shrug. These are highly unlikable characters, and yet you find yourself fervently hoping that they get away with it.
A noir theater piece lives or dies on its ambiance. A designer who lacks a dexterous touch runs the risk of creating a heavy-handed parody, but the design dream team assembled by ACT consistently gets it right. The efforts of Lighting Designer Rick Paulsen are subtle, but memorable. A rack of high-intensity white lights blind the audience like an oncoming train at the outset of the play. A blood-red ray that surely comes from the dive bar down the block pierces Huff’s down-at-the-heels apartment. Faint moonlight flickers over a blue-hued beach as Huff frolics drunkenly with Phyllis’ nubile stepdaughter, Lola (Jessica Martin). Scene after scene, it’s evocative and effective.
The diverse locations of the play are suggested with ruthless minimalism by Thomas Lynch’s wedge-shaped, emerald green marble set, which juts out onto the stage floor like the corner of a tall and featureless building. It cracks open periodically to reveal a hospital bed canted at a crazy angle, the stripped frame of a car, or a side table with a telephone, liquor bottle, and glass jumbled chaotically in a perfect symbol of Huff’s barren, muddled life. Overlaying the action, Brendan Patrick Hogan’s industrial-driven sound design of thundering trains, fierce oil field explosions, and bass notes played erratically on a piano intrudes on the action when it should, then backs off gracefully to let the actors carry the drama.
It’s a nearly perfect noir production, with one exception. Crucially, Bogar and Paff lack anything approaching sexual chemistry. Their first encounter, intended to be rife with fiery passion, barely crackles. Suggestive dialogue about the merits of car insurance versus enrollment in the auto club falls flat, though both actors gamely attempt to exchange steamy glances. After minutes of forced banter, Paff purrs the world’s least risqué non-sequitur, “Do you like chow mein?” Bogar replies, “Yes, I like chow mein,” and suddenly they’re tangled in a wild kiss, complete with vigorous groping and heavy panting.
It’s awkward, and it doesn’t get any better as their relationship and murder plot progress. However, when everything begins to fall apart and their lust is replaced by mutual suspicion and hatred, Bogar and Paff’s relationship becomes genuinely fascinating. Passionate dislike, they are both able to portray with ease. When the two at last realize that they’ve reached the end of the line, their shocking final act produced unfeigned screams of terror from the members of the audience seated in the front row.
If you go: Double Indemnity is the final play in ACT’s 2011 season. It runs through Nov. 20. $15-37.50. For tickets, visit www.acttheatre.org.