There are genres, including Westerns and noir, that by their very nature are infinitely better suited to the screen than the stage. Thus the stage adaptation of American noir novelist David Goodis’ 1956 “Down There” — which was the basis for Francois Truffaut’s 1960 noir homage “Shoot the Piano Player” — is fighting tough odds from the word go. Co-opting the Truffaut title, Richard Corley has wrested a play from the Goodis novel that almost never wins. There are moments in act one that flicker with life as the cast struggles with the intractable, often risible material and attempts to evoke the hard-boiled thesping style of John Garfield, Ida Lupino, Bogart and Bacall. But act two, with its climactic shootout, goes right down the drain.
In truth, the Truffaut film itself hasn’t worn well and was always a triumph of cinematic style over content. The content of the Goodis novel is almost impossible to take with a straight face: Plot follows a former concert pianist who plays in a grungy bar in Philadelphia because his wife slept with an entrepreneur in order to get a concert hall contract for him. She then committed suicide when he couldn’t cope with this fact. That’s just for starters.
Seated at a piano high above the rear of the stage, composer David Sherman plays the Gershwinesque introduction to what unfolds, starting in time with a metronome onstage. Along the way Sherman segues from echoes of Gershwin and Debussy to barroom strains and the opening of Grieg’s piano concerto. His music and playing are, finally, too dominant for the production’s good. (He and lyricist Lois Walden are working on a musical version of “Shoot the Piano Player ,” which may be a better bet than this straight play version, though it’ll still be a gamble.)
The play’s action begins with Eddie Lynn (Lance Williams) miming piano playing stage front as Turley Lynn (John Cooper) hurtles onto the stage, fleeing for his life. Turley is Eddie’s small-time crook brother, who is being chased by two gangster buddies he has double-crossed. The rest of play revolves around the hunting down of Turley, a highly dangerous situation in which Eddie and his bar waitress girlfriend Lena (Maggie Lacey) became too involved. Flashbacks tell us of Eddie’s sad past, and the action ends with the shootout in the snow.
In typical period noir fashion, much of the dialogue attempts to be high-flown in a woozily poetic way. This language and the fights, stabbings and shootings make it extremely difficult to stage, particularly in the intimate surroundings of the Berkshire Theater Festival’s second stage.
Only one member of the cast, Lacey, even begins to have the period style and panache essential to deal with such material. Playing both Eddie’s girlfriend and his late wife, Teresa, she has the right 1950s look and sound, something almost everyone else finds elusive.
The play’s look remains lean as a lot of miming is done throughout, and only bits and pieces of furniture are used to suggest the many different venues. Too much of the physical staging is clumsy, but given the built-in difficulties of the material, how could it not be?