Eric Overmyer, former head writer of TV’s “St. Elsewhere,” best known in the theater as the lyrical word-spinner behind such dramas as “On the Verge,” has concocted a highly entertaining thriller in “Dark Rapture.” Originally staged in Seattle, the “theater noir” has been rewritten a little, a new scene has been added, and director Richard Hamburger has given it an excitingly cinematic staging at the Dallas Theater Center.
Borrowing liberally from Raymond Chandler and the rogue-ish, scam-filled novels of Elmore Leonard, Overmyer is tongue-and-cheeking the worlds of both film noir and filmmaking. Ray, a would-be screenwriter, takes the opportunity of a major California wildfire to disappear with several millions in mob money given to his faithless wife, Julia, to finance her first film. But the hoods want their financing back, and they’re not buying the verdict of death by fire.
In this world, pitching script ideas is just another hustle or conspiracy — along with drug dealing, gun running, the Armenian holocaust and the JFK assassination. “Dark Rapture” is about the American Dream of reinventing your life — with the help of a lot of money. But it also concerns, lightly, the fine print under that dream: The money always comes with strings attached.
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In such previous dramas as “In a Pig’s Valise” and “In Perpetuity Throughout the Universe,” Overmyer has displayed a fascination with film noir and its wisecracking slang. But even his characters’ pyrotechnic patter indicates he’s essentially a comic writer, a writer about possibilities in language and life — meaning “Dark Rapture” doesn’t have all of the brooding menace or urban claustrophobia of classic noir. It’s more larkish than that, and sometimes overly clever (a final twist/revelation seems unnecessary).
If there’s a chief drawback to Hamburger’s direction, it’s the actors’ pushing the comedy too much and the danger not enough. Robert Dorfman’s Key West lounge singer, for instance, edges into the goony.
What “Dark Rapture” does have, to keep things hopping, is lots of exotic and erotic travel — from Mexico to Seattle to Tampa to New Orleans. With movies as its model, the 17-scene play is a monster to stage, unless done simply with just slide projections to designate location. Hamburger takes the opposite tack: The show’s motto seems to be “Whatever the movies can do, the stage can do better.” Using a fast-sliding, black-masking technique (much like the one used in “City of Angels”), designer Chris Barreca gives the Dallas Theater Center show all of the cross-cutting velocity of cinema. Whole scenes vanish and reappear in a snap , effectively. Even David Budries’ percussion-heavy music resounds with “Miami Vice”-style slickness and energy.
As Ray, Casey Biggs seems somewhat vague, but then, the character is more acted upon than active. Everyone keeps asking why he took the money and ran because it’s his only real initiative. The fun here lies more with the supporting players, such as Lazaro Perez as an unshakable tail and Arthur Hankett and Dorfmann as a vaudeville team of thugs. Against Pamela Gray’s impressive Lauren Hutton-style cool as the wife, Ellen McElduff is overripe but enjoyable as a Key West pickup — sort of the younger, wilder sister to Rue McClanahan on “Golden Girls.”
Although some of the baroque speeches remain leagues beyond anything heard in films, “Dark Rapture” is Overmyer’s most mainstream, most accessible, perhaps even most lightweight stage work. Even so, considering that most stage thrillers are one-set, four-character puzzles, the Theater Center’s “Dark Rapture” has an exuberance and assurance in its achievement that’s hard to resist.