The Seven-Decade Shadow Across Los Angeles: PL.A.Y Noir 2016
Los Angeles, the City of Angels, the burg where sunshine is guaranteed year-round. People can come here to start over and leave their pasts behind.
Don’t believe it for a moment.
As L.A. became the fastest-growing city in the United States in the early 20th century, the darkness underneath this sunny veneer beame more obvious. Finding its way into the movies, it was known as noir. Dark crimes, compromised heroes and femmes fatales who led them to their doom became an important moviemaking style in the 1940s and ’50s. Even today, it is easy to think of noir-style stories as taking place only in those decades. An annual festival of one-act plays, PL.A.Y Noir, has dedicated itself to a celebration (if that is the right word) of the enduring appeal of this film style.
For PL.A.Y Noir’s sixth season, running from September 9 to October 2, this concept has been abandoned to a point. For the first time, the plays (expanded from the usual six to seven for 2016) is divided between period pieces and contemporary tales. This illustrates the view that noir covers the dark side of human nature no matter what era.
Another striking part of this year’s collection is the humor found in many of the plays. The first one, Chris Karmiol‘s “Rabbi Noir,” shows the struggles of a man of the cloth who solves cases while dealing with his (very) Jewish mother. Two others, Bill Doncaster‘s “Dumb Muscle” and Jeff Carter‘s “Just Business,” use gunshot wounds and hit men as ways to poke fun at notions of gratitude and business ethics.
Far from focusing on the lighter side of noir, the evening is balanced out by a quartet of pitch-black plays. Stephen Baily‘s “For You, Julius,” uses the real-life story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed as communist spies in the 1950s, as inspiration for its tale of love and betrayal. “Nobody’s Whore” by April Littlejohn tells a story of a murderously dysfunctional family set to a rap beat. While employing dark humor, “Cherry” by Scott Lummer shows a serial killer who gets more than he bargained for in the latest woman he has chained up in his basement.
The final play, “The Rotten State,” takes the Joan Crawford noir classic “Mildred Pierce” as its jumping-off point for a tale of two actresses who are in a deadly competition for stardom. Much like “Sunset Boulevard,” this play finds the darkness lurking in Hollywood itself. After the show, this play also inspired a fun debate over whether one character, Lillian, is a murderer. Roxanne Jaeckel, the actress who played her, and playwright John Conroy could not agree themselves.
The best part of PL.A.Y Noir is the cast members themselves. Much like a reperatory company, many of the actors have two or more roles. Some write and/or direct as well as act. This creates a strong enthusiasm for their work along with a sharply-honed sense of teamwork. These performers enjoy the dark side of the material and it shows. The audience cannot help but share their excitement, which makes PL.A.Y Noir a bracing, thrilling night at the theater.