Kill Me, Deadly is about the dumbest play you'll ever see, and also one of the funniest. Bill Robens' parody of Hollywood film noir films of the 1940s and 1950s is a ridiculous mélange of red herrings, femme fatales, murders, a plot that doesn't twist as much as collapse upon itself, wise-cracking dames, witless thugs and perhaps the most confidently obtuse private detective to ever be committed to page. But it all, mostly, works in this rollicking fun production at STAGEStheatre directed by Steven Biggs and graced by the game efforts of a 12-person cast.
Set in 1947 Hollywood, where life is as cheap as a chalk-stripe suit (according to the program), the play's backdrop is reminiscent of La La Land, as the City of Angels is as much a narrative force as the story. We don't see much of that in this production, except for a few projections courtesy of Jon Gaw, but the frequent allusions to the town in the script make it impossible to overlook. Nor do we get the gritty composure of so many of those films, which relied so often on low-key lighting and unconventional cinematography.
But we do get all the stock characters readily identifiable by anyone who has seen The Big Sleep or Double Indemnity. There's the hardboiled private detective Charlie Nickles (Abel Miramontes); his snappy secretary Ida (Judy Mina-Ballard); the nefarious female with dubious intentions, Mona Livingston (Darri Kristin); the rich widow Lady Clairmont (Julie Kirkman); her saucy daughter, Veronica (Alexis-Lynn Harding); and, for some reason, a washed-up former boxer (Frank Tryon), three hobos, Bugsy Siegel (Andrew Margolin), and a cursed diamond that serves as kind of a McGuffin of the affair.
The chief difference of course between this parody and real film noir is that we know from the outset that this is less about an ominous, sinister plot or the solving of a crime than it is a motley assortment of gags and puns and the kind of dialogue that seems lifted straight from Mickey Spillane. And playwright Robens, who wrote this in 2010 and turned it into a screenplay filmed last year, does a riotous job with the words, such as Charlie's opening monologue as he muses about Los Angeles and the "cigar-chomping, beet-faced, card-carrying members of the LAPD's Bum Brigade, grinning at you as you take some brass knuckles to your sternum and one for good measure in the chops."
The lower-case plot finds Charlie enmeshed in the mystery of the death of a wealthy widow who he has recently taken on as a client. But it then careens into a hopeless convoluted saga involving everything from a hobo encampment to a butler who we're never sure why he's onstage, a stunning equestrian heiress and, most strangely, the sudden appearance of Siegel, the only real-life character in the show, who goes off on some weird monologue about creating a state like Israel, except only for mobsters, and who then disappears as suddenly. And, as with any hardboiled story about a private dick, there's a love affair, which is as obviously doomed from its inception as the 2017 Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim season. But again, if you're looking for a believable plot or characters, you're looking in the wrong place with this one.
The production isn't perfect. The scene changes could be sped up and the costuming seems all over the place. And a few members of the ensemble don't always seem to be up to snuff. But the two leads, Miramontes and Kristin, are sharp-witted and fiery, and you can tell both actors know how to pirouette on the comedic precipice of taking a joke to its bending point, but not quite breaking it.
It ain't Shakespeare. But it is a fun distraction less about plot and character development than it is a free-wheeling comedic mix that actually pays homage to the genre it is spoofing, while also deliriously mangling so many of its conventions.
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Oh, and since we've got you on the horn: two very different theatrical vehicles are coming up on local stages in the next couple of weeks. One begins this weekend at Orange Coast College, where the school's Repertory Theatre Co. will produce the longest-running play in Chicago history, Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, in which 30 two-minute plays are produced in 60 minutes, and the audience gets to pick which one is done when. The second is another experimental evening of creative anarchy, the 2017 Orange County Improv Festival, held at STAGES April 19-23. Don't say you weren't told. Or warned.
Kill Me, Deadly at STAGEStheatre, 400 E. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton, (714) 525-4484; www.stagesoc.org. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through April 15. $20-$22.