What’s an unhappy, suicidal, clinically depressed sourpuss like Raymond Chandler doing in sunny Hollywood — and working with that famously difficult writer-director, Billy Wilder? Legend has it that this odd couple nearly skinned one another alive while collaborating on “Double Indemnity,” the 1944 movie that begat the film noir genre. This is the legend that TV editor-turned-scribe Mike Bencivenga and his big name helmer, Garry Marshall, attempt to immortalize in “Billy & Ray.” But just as there’s no drama in painters painting and philosophers thinking on stage, there’s no joy watching hapless thesps — in a cast at the Vineyard Theater that includes Vincent Kartheiser of “Mad Men” — struggling to play writers writing.
No one comes off well in this ill-advised venture except maybe Charlie Corcoran, whose set for a writer’s office on the Paramount Pictures lot in the 1940s looks quite smart. Vaguely Bauhaus in style, the desks and other office furniture have simple, clean lines, and the bookcases look like solid wood. There’s even a wooden frame around the proscenium arch. (Only the impossibly blue sky outside the window looks fake.)
The office belongs to Billy Wilder (Kartheiser, a.k.a. Pete Campbell on “Mad Men”), the brilliant and volatile young Austrian director hot off his first hit movie, “Ninotchka.” A talker, a shouter, a quarreler, a pacer, a drinker, a womanizer and an all-around Type A personality, he’s caught here in the process of driving off yet another writer hired to adapt James M. Cain’s steamy crime novel into something that might have a chance of getting past the censors who police the Hollywood Production Code.
Since that rules out adultery, nudity, murder, suicide, and any graphic violence whatsoever, Wilder’s new hired pen, the great hard-boiled crime novelist Raymond Chandler (Larry Pine), is a bit nonplussed. But Chandler is desperate for money and Wilder is cocky enough to think he can get around the Code. “We’re going to have to be very subtle,” he explains.
This is the most interesting piece of intelligence to come out of the play, this revelation of how the fearsome Production Code forced writers and directors to work out of necessity in more subtle and crafty ways — and in the process, to make better movies. But the scribe’s awkward attempts to stage all those eureka moments involved in writing an artful screenplay have the opposite effect – they make the process look phony.
The acting is as stilted as the situation. Kartheiser leans hard on Wilder’s European mannerisms and language lapses to compensate for the character’s lack of depth, while Pine (“Casa Valentina”), who has even less to work with, takes the opposite tack and tries to internalize Chandler’s struggles to work with a difficult collaborator in an alien environment.
Although their characters are only skin deep, Kartheiser and Pine are at least acting on the same stage. The other two characters in the play, Wilder’s perky secretary and a frazzled producer, seem to have blundered in from a sitcom.