NY Theater Review Sandi Durell


If you don’t already know the backstory about how one of America’s most popular films, Double Indemnity, finally came to the screen in 1944, the Vineyard Theatre’s current production, by Mike Bencivenga and directed by Garry Marshall, will make you an expert. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards.

Billy is the Billy Wilder, a Viennese who came to the States to practice his art of film making in a free society, as all hell was beginning to break loose pre World War II. When Paramount gave him James Cain’s novella, Double Indemnity, to bring to the screen, he started the project with his writing partner Charlie Brackett, but it fell apart when Brackett walked out which is where this current play begins, as we hear them battling in Wilder’s office, his secretary Helen (sweetly and adorably played by Sophie von Haselberg) hiding under her desk.

Billy is played by TV’s Vincent Kartheiser (Mad Men), with all the spit and fire he can muster as the foul talking, womanizing, larger-than-life filmmaker who finds himself looking for another writing partner. When the film’s producer Joe Sistrom (a sharp looking Drew Gehling) brings him Raymond Chandler (Larry Pine – Casa Valentina), the novelist famous for the Philip Marlowe books, Billy says yes.

It’s like fire and water coming together – Ray after reading the Cain book saying “It’s absolute shit” – but will do it anyway (because he needs the money and a steady job) and will have a script ready in a week once they agree on his fee, which is more than he would have dreamed. When he returns with the first 80 pages, Billy throws it in the garbage and, although Ray wants to work solo at home, is talked into a collaboration writing together with Billy at the office (a comfortably designed and movable period set by Charlie Corcoran), the way it’s usually done taking 4-5 months or more (and getting paid till finish).

The dialog is glib and mainly fast-paced, with lots of shouting by the cavalier Billy. Although Ray claims he doesn’t drink, he’s a closet drinker sneaking a nip from the bottle he carries in his briefcase whenever Billy disappears into the bathroom. Helen carries out her secretarial duties, sharply dressed in 1940s style suits and dresses designed by Michael Krass, as all good little gals of the era – getting coffee, lunch and generally meeting all her boss’s demands as a gofer.

Billy and Ray pound out the writing and storyline of Double Indemnity, as Sistrom pops in and out trying to assuage the tumultuous relationship and battling between these two contentious men; the script coming into visual focus with exquisite details as the two bang out the storyline, trying to meet all the censorship regulations of the time – no sex, no blood, no violence, no dead bodies. What’s a filmmaker to do?

When Ray gets tired of having Billy boss him around, he walks out but is persuaded, by Sistrom, to return under new rules. Billy gets Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray on the phone – part of the humorous Hollywood repartee – as he quickly talks them into taking the lead roles. There are many comical moments and stories that Billy offers up in an accent that sounds more Irish or Scottish brogue than Viennese. Larry Pine is finely chosen as the straight-laced, stagnant teacher turned novelist character, who only lets loose when he’s had a few glasses of bourbon under his belt in Act II.

And the rest is history as the film noir took its place in the annals of Hollywood.

Billy & Ray will enlighten with a  chuckle in the 2 hours (with intermission) at the Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th Street, NY 866-811-4111. Running thru November 9th.

*Photos: Carol Rosegg