There’s a lot of toil and trouble in “Double Double,” the comedy-thriller making its American preem at the Williamstown Theater Festival in the Berkshires. The play, which has little comedy or thrills but plenty of unbelievable characters, limp dialogue and plot holes, is the creation of a.d. Roger Rees (who helms the production) and Rick Elice (co-scripter of Rialto hit “Jersey Boys”).
The play has been knocking around since its West End bow 20 years ago (Rees starred along with Jane Lapotaire). Though the marketable two-hander in an audience-friendly genre has received many productions, there hasn’t been a U.S. bow until now.
But writing a dandy thriller is not a simple death-by-numbers endeavor, despite this numerology-centric script. It requires precision, logic and a genuine sense of fun, even as its plot ultimately twists and turns and doubles back. Here, the premise begins rather tenuously and gets more troublesome as the play goes on.
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The wealthy Phillipa James (Jennifer Van Dyck) brings the homeless Duncan McFee (Matt Letscher) to her ritzy London digs, designed with the right touch of swank by Neil Patel, with Charles Foster providing requisite lighting mood for ambient suspense.
But it’s clear, as the cool lady unveils her scheme, that her aim is not philanthropic: She wants the hirsute hobo — whom she just happened to see on the street and who bears an uncanny resemblance to her late husband, Richard — to impersonate him so she can collect his $2 million trust fund. The details of Richard’s death, the conditions of the deal and the behavior of the new widow are more than enough to raise arched eyebrows from the aud — but not dim Duncan.
To see if the endeavor can succeed before the trust’s lawyer, she says, Duncan must first pass muster with Richard’s friends and secretary. But in addition to this far-fetched point, the show’s second act is layered with further back stories, revelations and an unlikely romance.
Ever increasing and strained exposition — and heightened acting — makes one wonder if the play is deliberately veering into Charles Ludlam territory. If only.
As play reaches its climax, the audience is forced to slog through a series of narrative switcheroos that are more exhausting than thrilling.
The ending offers a nice twist, but one not altogether satisfying in a production that has few earned payoffs or charms. There’s some class playfulness in this gender-switch “Pygmalion” angle, and Letscher, whose Scottish brogue is as thick as bad haggis, has some fun with the transformation. But the double dealings add up almost by whim rather than calculation — and that’s not dramaturgy, just improv.
Problems with suspension of disbelief could have been softened had the dialogue been more sparkling, but here the verbal champagne falls flat.
Production’s major wit comes from scenes introduced by recordings of Ella Fitzgerald singing “You Take Advantage of Me,” “All Right With Me” and “From This Moment On,” creating the right mood for a sophisticated good time. But the double-cross begins right there.