Double Indemnity

James M. Cain's 1936 "Double Indemnity" is a compact crime novella that looks into the cold soul of Depression-era city life and comes away shivering.

James M. Cain’s 1936 “Double Indemnity” is a compact crime novella that looks into the cold soul of Depression-era city life and comes away shivering. The same could be said about R. Hamilton Wright and David Pichette’s new stage adaptation, co-produced by Seattle’s ACT Theater and San Jose Repertory Theater, though occasionally the shivers give way to chuckles.

For the most part, the play adheres faithfully to the book, which also inspired Billy Wilder’s 1944 film. A morally dodgy Los Angeles insurance salesman, Walter Huff (John Bogar), encounters a client’s beautiful wife (Carrie Paff), who goads him into committing a crime. The first act tracks the pair as they conspire; the second traces the aftermath of the dirty deed, through many surprises and reversals.

The stylish production, directed by ACT artistic chief Kurt Beattie, points back to the noir sensibility of the Wilder movie. Credit designer Thomas Lynch’s marvel of a set: Shifting panels and a rotating floor alter the audience’s point of view as effectively as a moving camera. Rick Paulsen’s sun-and-shadow lighting and Annie Smart’s glamorous period costumes also recall film classics of the ’30s and ’40s.

Smart’s gowns are worn elegantly by Paff, a Veronica Lake-like beauty who makes a convincing femme fatale, marred only by an occasional line-reading that seems too passionate or emphatic for a play that should be as chilly as dry ice.

The same mild criticism could be leveled at most of the cast — including Bogar as Huff; Jessica Martin as the client’s barely-adult daughter, Lola; and Mark Anderson Phillips as Lola’s slippery beau Nino — all of whom sometimes oversell the dialogue. With a story like this, suspense arises from what is unsaid: Secrets kept and motives unspoken. The tension is highest when the gulf widens between words and reality.

When Huff first meets Phyllis, his client’s wife, they have a terse conversation that’s ostensibly about food — but really it’s a declaration of sexual attraction, Delivered just right, the exchange could be sly; overheated, it’s a little silly, as it is here.

Put it down to opening-night nerves — which apparently didn’t plague thesp Richard Ziman, who was perfectly tuned as Keyes, Huff’s mentor at the insurance agency. It’s Keyes’ instinctive, restless intelligence that begins to unravel Huff’s plan.

The actors can, and most of the time do, take their cues from Cain’s text, nearly devoid of adjectives and embellishment. The adapters wisely have retained some of the novella’s tautest passages, providing especially chilling moments in this neat little noir that should have a future.

Double Indemnity

ACT Theater, The Falls Theater, Seattle, Wash.; 409 seats; $55 top

  • Production: An ACT Theater/San Jose Repertory Theater co-presentation of a play in two acts, adapted by David Pichette and R. Hamilton Wright from the novel by James M. Cain. Directed by Kurt Beattie.
  • Crew: Sets, Thomas Lynch; costumes, Annie Smart; lights, Rick Paulsen; sound, Brendan Patrick Hogan; composer, Adam Stern; Jeffrey K. Hanson, stage manager; Whitney Breite, assistant stage manager; Robert Macdougall, fight director. Opened and reviewed Oct. 27, 2011; runs through Nov. 20. Running time: 2 HOURS, 10 MIN.
  • Cast: Walter HuffJohn Bogar Lola Nirlinger/Nettie/NurseJessica Martin Phyllis NirlingerCarrie Paff Nino/Jackson/NortonMark Anderson Phillips Keyes/NirlingerRichard Ziman