James Ellroy’s novels are studies in dualities. On a cursory level, they are detective thrillers. On a deeper level, they’re explorations of the darkest, most dangerous recesses of the psyche. Yale Rep’s elaborate production of “The Black Dahlia,” receiving its U.S. premiere in New Haven, only brushes the surface of Ellroy’s demon-filled world. In attempting to be the theatrical equivalent of a page-turner, it substitutes speed for substance. By the end of this intricately produced, three-hour-plus show, the audience might know whodunit, but have no idea why.
Director Mike Alfreds adapted Ellroy’s sprawling 1987 novel, a fictional telling of the 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short — a young woman whose tortured, mutilated body was cut in half at the waist and abandoned in a vacant lot. (Alfreds’ version was presented in London in 1998.) He’s more editor than adapter, however, and not always a circumspect editor — there are few pages of Ellroy’s 325-page book that he has resisted. Such faithfulness is a virtue for books-on-tape, but it’s a sin for the stage.
The project, the season-opener for Yale Rep a.d. James Bundy’s second season, is admirable in its epic scope (13 actors playing 39 roles) and theatrical daring, but the noble principles yield insufficient interest. The tech-heavy show glides along with impressive fluidity, but extra rehearsal time failed to bring about the kind of Brechtian epic that might have emerged.
“Dahlia” is more problematic source material than Ellroy’s “L.A. Confidential,” which translated well into Curtis Hanson’s 1997 film. Though “Dahlia’s” world is similar in its depiction of corrupt cops, stoolies, punks, pimps, whores, floozies and Hollywood wannabes, the parallel and intersecting lives of the characters in this journey are difficult to follow without the roadmap of Ellroy’s cut-to-the-chase, slangy prose. In this stage version, speed is of the essence and character exploration gets the am-scray.
Ellroy spins a tale of two psyches, as a pair of cops’ pursuit of a killer turns into an obsession that goes beyond a search for justice. But these roles call for actors who have the emotional heft, maturity and presence to make their characters credible and compelling over a long and kinetic narrative. Here, the angst-ridden protagonists simply strike attitudes.
Mike Dooly’s “Bucky” Bleichert is too lightweight as the narrator/antihero. Marcus Dean Fuller’s Lee Blanchard is more frat brother than tough-guy cop with secrets to keep. There is little of the complex, desperate souls lurking beneath their facile facades.
Amanda Cobb’s Kay Lake, the woman who holds both men together, is played and costumed as the girl next door, which belies Ellroy’s sophisticated and snappy dialogue. (“Keep talking about me in the third person,” she says. “It sends me.”) Neither does it jibe with the character’s horrific past. The rest of the women fare better — in at least some of their multiple roles — when they aren’t channeling Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis or Charles Busch. Mercedes Herrero makes two characters resonate in the stillness of their scenes. Of the men, Marl Zeisler’s authoritative perf achieves authenticity, making it more than an exercise in dress-up.
Stephen Strawbridge lights the ever-changing scenes with finesse, (and avoids noir-ish cliches). Peter McKintosh’s set, which divides the stage horizontally, gets it half right. The top section cleverly conveys information, mood and style, aided by Blythe Quinlan’s smart projections. But the bottom half, set in the gray grunge of a police locker room, doesn’t serve the story well, especially when it travels to more polished L.A. settings.
The show’s final image is a photograph of Elizabeth Short. But this sudden presence of reality gives the preceding world onstage a creepy endnote, seemingly relegating this latest rumination on “everyone’s favorite dead girl” just another contribution to the collection of necrophiliac fiction.