It’s night. Or dusk, or twilight. The colors are black and white and gray. The music is moody horn-blown jazz. The surroundings are brick, punctuated by shafts of light pooling before suddenly, briefly, opened doors. The men wear hats. Everybody smokes. The dialogue is terse, staccato. The stakes are high. No one is who they appear to be, and nothing is what it seems.
This is the world of noir. And director Marc Geller and the New Jersey Rep design team have brought it thrillingly, palpably, grittily to life in Noir.
The intentions are made very clear very early on. We see a bleak set made up of gray walls that could—and will—be a prison cell, a police station, and a series of nondescript but sketchy back alleys and street corners. There are several doors and windows. Tellingly, these windows—which in other stories, other sets, would let in light and air—will never open.
Oh yeah, it’s THAT smart.
Tough guy detective McQue is our guide into this shadowy land, laying out his hunches and suspicions as he fills us in on the actions of protagonist Clay Holden, the newest detective on the force. Holden has been promoted on the basis of his reputation for fearless, almost ruthless, protection of his partner. Lieutenant Norbert Grimes quickly takes a shine to Holden, making him his protégée. Holden, for his part, quickly takes more than a shine to the dazzling and enigmatic widow Helen Lydecker, whom he meets at a museum.
The plot swiftly unfolds, primarily through narrated exposition. The elements are the classic tropes of the genre: a femme fatale, a struggle between love and conscience, mistaken identity, misplaced trust, a hidden past (or two), a murder (or two). And even though the elements are familiar, the twists and turns of the plot make the piece inexorably gripping.
Playwright Stan Werse plays it straight. This is a celebration, not a send-up, of the genre. There are no cheap jokes or ironic anachronisms. The dialogue, if not quite as crackling as Billy Wilder’s in Double Indemnity, is tight and cool and crisp, replete with lines like “Life is too short for maybe” and “Only the movies are black and white” and “In this world, you do what you have to do to survive.” The press materials rightly call this an homage.
And the director sustains this beautifully. Faced with the challenge of a highly talky play with very little action, Geller gives us just that—very little action. The players stand tableau-still, doing little more than lighting cigarettes, inhaling, exhaling, and talking. So when an action is made—a sudden about-face, a threatening move, a looming presence appearing in a doorway—it is all the more intense and unnerving juxtaposed with the surrounding ominous stillness.
Darrell Glasgow is a handsome and properly quixotic Holden. Thomas Grube as Lieutenant Grimes is oddly, intriguingly, reminiscent of Humphrey Bogart, with his craggy face and voice. As Helen, Catherine LeFrere conveys both sophistication and sass, all the while looking stunning in beautiful black and white creations from costume designer Patricia E. Doherty. Michael McCoy played McQue in Noir’s original outing at the 2011 New York International Fringe Festival, and it shows: he brings a nuanced, believable complexity to this big lug character that a less experienced performer would have missed.
But what grounds the actors to the piece, and what lifts the piece to the ambitions envisioned by Werse and Geller, are the terrific set, costume, light, and sound design. Jessica Parks, Patricia E. Doherty, Jill Nagle, and Jack Kennedy, respectively, have created a place in which Werse’s words and Geller’s direction can effortlessly evoke and invoke the noirs of the thirties and forties. And don’t miss the very clever opening credits.