“Billy and Ray” at the Vineyard Theatre (Closed Sunday November 23, 2014)

October 23, 2014 | Off-Broadway | Tags:
Written by Mike Bencivenga
Directed by Garry Marshall
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

Plays about the making of plays or the making of movies ought to adhere to the conventions of the genre being dramatized. Playwright Mike Bencivenga fails to accomplish this important writer’s task in his new “Billy and Ray” currently running at the Vineyard Theatre. This play about the collaboration between Billy Wilder (Vincent Kartheiser) and Raymond Chandler (Larry Pine) on the adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1943 novella ”Double Indemnity” for the screen portrays Wilder and Chandler as flat and static characters on the set of a television sit-com with walls that shake when windows and doors are closed. Director Garry Marshall oddly does little to animate his cast and the lot of them seems ready for the final curtain not long after it rises. This is an unfortunate circumstance for a talented cast more than capable of animating a script and for an audience more than ready to appreciate its collective craft.

What should be an interesting play about the making of the 1944 film noir classic “Double Indemnity” fails to hit the mark and lies flat for most of its two hour and ten minute duration. In Act II, Ray admonishes Billy to “treat the audience like adults.” That was good advice for Billy and it ought to have been equally good advice for Mr. Marshall who chooses to treat the audience here as pubescent star-struck interlopers.

Mr. Bencivenga includes rants about the lack of artistic freedom in the United States – freedom that Wilder hoped to find after settling in America and alludes to Wilder’s concerns about his parents in Hitler’s Austria and to Chandler’s alcoholism. Both “secrets” are used to goad one another into an artistic treasure trove. Unfortunately, none of this works. In short, “Billy and Ray” flounders in its attempt to honor the collaboration upon which it ostensibly based.

Sophie Von Haselberg is efficient as Billy Wilder’s omnipresent secretary Helen and Drew Gehling is ideal as the producer Joe Sistrom who needs to get Billy and Ray to produce a script that will pass the censorial test of “decency.” Along with Mr. Kartheiser and Mr. Pine, they do their best to enliven a troubled script under less than supportive direction. Mr. Marshall’s decision to play Billy and Ray’s collaborative scenes in the style of film noir is unnecessary and adds nothing to the development of the plot. And the ending of the play – whether the work of the playwright or the choice of the director – is puzzling and sophomoric.