In theater, as in film noir, a little atmosphere goes a long way. In director Eleanor Holdridge’s sleek production of Double Indemnity, now playing at Round House Theatre, smoke and shadows cloak everything in mystery, a brass-heavy soundtrack sets the mood, and actors deliver snappy dialogue in the cool, smooth cadence of old Hollywood movie stars. In other words, the feel of James M. Cain’s classic 1930s crime story is just right.
What’s not so fitting in this new interpretation (adapted for the stage by David Pichette and R. Hamilton Wright) is the flimsy premise and motivation upon which the central action seems to rest. Known for other popular novels turned movies The Postman Always Rings Twice and Mildred Pierce (a work that’s had something of a renaissance in the past year following its 2011 HBO remake), Cain originally penned Indemnity in 1936. Billy Wilder’s 1944 cinematic take on the suspenseful story was met with great success. So the story itself clearly has staying power: In 1930s Los Angeles, insurance agent Walter Huff (Marty Lodge) falls for Phyllis Nirlinger (Celeste Ciulla), the sexpot wife of a wealthy client. When he learns of Mrs. Nirlinger’s plans to get rid of her husband, Huff helps her plot the perfect murder—and accident insurance on railroad “mishaps” pays double indemnity.
The problem here is in the setup: In the play’s crucial opening scenes, Huff and Mrs. Nirlinger seem to stumble into their murderous project without having established any of the impulsive passion that would make such a weighty decision believable. The pair meet by chance, and suddenly they’re ready to kill.
While a certain hotheaded chemistry is lacking, the actors themselves otherwise deliver with the material they have to work with. Lodge, a Round House veteran, exudes an easy, slick confidence, and for the amount of time he spends onstage, he never misses a beat. Ciulla too is striking, if a little melodramatic at times, with a throaty voice and seductive presence that helps distract from some of the show’s more unconvincing aspects. Playing multiple roles each, the rest of the cast members embrace the dark and ominous vibe as well, adding complexity and layers to a plotline that needs it at times. A handful of climactic scenes really hit their stride, tapping the emotionally intensity that feeds a thriller, but that tension comes too late to be completely satisfying.
Indemnity is no doubt entertaining. Soaring art deco set pieces and menacing projections by scenic designer Daniel Conway transport the audience to a distinct time and place they won’t care to leave, while the cast channels that ambiance completely. Even stage hands rearranging furniture onstage keep in step with the noir theme, decked out in neatly tailored period suits and hats. But exciting design choices and committed actors can’t be everything. Building a captivating production requires a compelling, plausible storyline to serve as its foundation, and when that foundation feels shoddy, it’s hard to overlook it. This murder mystery has style and swagger to spare—unconvincing substance is the only crime it’s guilty of.
Double Indemnity is at Round House Theatre Bethesda through June 24. Running time is two hours, with one intermission. Tickets ($10 to $61) are available through Round House’s website.