Kill Me Like You Mean It
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 11, 2007
Last season, Stolen Chair Theatre Company put a silent film on stage at the Red Room and made the audience laugh and cry, all the while demonstrating just what it was about silent movies that made them such an important component and exemplar of America's prewar innocence (The Man Who Laughs).
Now, this season, this extraordinary young company offers a sequel, of sorts, in Kill Me Like You Mean It. This time, it's classic film noir of the 1940s that's re-created with astonishing authenticity on the tiny Red Room stage. The genre is filtered through the lens of the nearly contemporaneous absurdist theatre movement (think Ionesco's Bald Soprano), which turns out to be something of a stroke of genius in helping us understand why noir, of all things, was such an important component and exemplar of America's postwar innocence.
Yes, you read that right: Laura and The Big Sleep and everything in between want to make us believe they're adult and sophisticated, but the values they promulgate turn out to be as hopelessly naive as anything D.W. Griffith and Mary Pickford churned out. Kill Me Like You Mean It subverts a style by revealing it to have very little substance.
Playwright Kiran Rikhye, director Jon Stancato, and their collaborators dazzle with their range and versatility. Kill Me Like You Mean It is sharp, smart parody; Stancato's staging and the production design (sets and lighting by David Bengali, costumes by Merav Elbaz) nail the noir look—the piece is literally all in black, white, and red; the actors assume surreal angular postures so that they appear as if they're being photographed from some deliberately quirky angle. Meanwhile, Rikhye's fusion of Ionesco and Raymond Chandler is both brilliantly plotted and generally hilarious.
The story revolves around Ben Farrell, American Private Investigator (the painted sign on his glass office door actually identifies him as an "A.P.I.") Farrell gets a phone call from a mysterious beautiful woman, who invites him to see her perform at a local nightspot with no name on its door (her performance, an homage to Rita Hayworth's famous number in Gilda, has Emily Otto in a swirly black evening gown playing a jazz version of "America the Beautiful" on the trumpet). The mysterious beautiful woman is murdered, of course; and soon Farrell finds himself in the midst of a complicated web of intrigue involving an American Female Publisher, the American Playboy who is her star writer (of pulp fiction mystery stories, natch), and the American Ingenue who is the American Playboy's sister. There's also a cop, Jones, who is Farrell's nemesis. All look and behave just the way you'd expect them to—for example, Tommy Dickie, the playboy/author, is a dead ringer for Waldo Lydecker from Laura (and there's a painting of the beautiful mysterious woman on his wall, natch).
I won't reveal more about the plot except that Rikhye ties it up neatly and satisfyingly. This necessitates that the gags fly less frequently as the play nears its climax, but that's a small price to pay for a mystery/thriller that actually makes sense when the curtain comes down. (And don't worry, some of the choicest material comes in the second half.)
Stolen Chair veterans Cameron J. Oro and Alexia Vernon shine in the roles of the P.I. and the publisher (and you can hear a sample of their work on a recent episode of nytheatrecast dedicated to Kill Me Like You Mean It). Newcomers Tommy Dickie (who plays Tommy Dickie), Sam Dingman (Jones), and Liza Wade White (Vivian Ballantine, Tommy's dangerous sister) do fine work here as well; under Stancato's excellent direction, all capture the rhythms and grooves of noir cinema with real panache. The aforementioned Otto has a relatively brief, if showy, role, and her sultry trumpet solos provide splendid transitions between scenes.
We're told that two more film-style tributes are planned as future Stolen Chair productions; we can't wait. In the meantime, we have Kill Me Like You Mean It, which is as much fun as you can find in the theatre for a 15-dollar ducket. Plus, it's smart and engaging; don't miss this latest terrific presentation from one of NYC's most remarkable and accomplished young companies.