Plays about writing are bores or lies or both. The drama of the process, entirely internal and largely concerned with semicolons, can’t be staged, so a different drama has to be manufactured. Usually this involves clichéd obstacles and a sort of deus ex typewriter for the climax, justifying yet somehow invalidating everything that came before. You could argue that the vicissitudes of writing movies instead of prose — the collaborators, the studios, the test audiences, the Hays Office — offer a dramatist many ways around the problem, which is why there’s a mini-genre of comedies about screenplays. Indeed, those things did help Ron Hutchinson’s Moonlight and Magnolias, which in 2004 hitched a ride on the back of Gone With the Wind, telling the story of its emergency plot transplant at the hands of David O. Selznick, Victor Fleming, and Ben Hecht. The resultant play wasn’t awful; for that we had to wait until Billy & Ray, the new supposed comedy at the Vineyard about the writing of the 1944 classic Double Indemnity. All the same tools produce a unique mess, and the best thing I can say for it is that it should make a good deterrent.
Billy is Billy Wilder, who has been charged by Paramount with the job of turning James M. Cain’s tawdry 1935 novella about sex and insurance into a workable screenplay. When Wilder’s longtime writing partner, Charles Brackett, quits the job in a fit of good taste, he’s replaced by Ray: Raymond Chandler. Wilder and Chandler are absurdly contrasting characters: Wilder a childish, appetitive imp; Chandler a seedy, tweedy killjoy. They immediately fall in hate, but it’s a productive hate. Chandler brings to Wilder’s brilliant sense of structure and irony an ear for the patois of working stiffs and a personal knowledge of degradation. Together they figure out a way to tell the story without showing anything forbidden by the Production Code, instead implying adultery and murder in ways that would eventually become the vocabulary of the as-yet-unnamed film noir genre.
But this is a case where a play’s précis is more dramatic than the finished work. In filling in the details, the playwright, Mike Bencivenga, always defaults to the most obvious gestures. He gives us the movie’s producer, Joe Sistrom, swigging Pepto-Bismol, apparently agitated by having to provide so much exposition on the telephone. To up the ante, he reframes Chandler as a nearly unknown writer, though by 1943 he’d already produced The Big Sleep and Farewell My Lovely. And he gives Wilder’s secretary, Helen, who hasn’t much else to do but order food and mix martinis, responsibility for the idea of having the movie’s lovers meet in the aisles of a local market to plot the murder. (This was actually Chandler’s brilliant notion.) Beyond such heavy-handed clunkers, the play suffers from a terminal case of the cutes. When he isn’t making winking references to future Wilder movies like Sunset Boulevard, Bencivenga is turning that highly cultured man, who had worked in Vienna and Paris before emigrating, into a kind of Herr Malaprop. “Subtleties are fine,” Bencivenga’s Wilder tells Chandler. “As long as we make them obvious.” Or this ridiculous gambit, while the men are working out a plot point:
BILLY: So Phyllis wants to take a policy out on her husband. Without his knowing.
RAY: Without his knowledge.
RAY: You dangled your participle.
(Wilder checks his fly.)
That the phrase is neither dangling nor a participle does not seem to have bothered anyone, but then accuracy is not one of the play’s strong points. Not just in minor details, either; the very motor of the story has been installed backward. Bencivenga ignites the main conflict by telling us that Joseph Breen at the Hays Office has judged the material to be “unfilmable”; thus the screenwriters’ difficulty and thus the brilliant solution. But in real life, the Breen opinion had come down eight years before the events described in the play, at a time when many studios were considering buying the rights to the then-recent novella. By the time Chandler came onboard, Wilder and Brackett had already devised the indirect approach, and Breen had, for the most part, approved their treatment.
I’m not sure what the point is of doing historical here’s-how-they-wrote-it plays if you’re not going to stick pretty close to the facts. Without them, Billy & Ray cannot be about what it seems to intend: how a great work may arise from the conflict between worldviews. Instead it is left as a kind of fantasy sitcom featuring one outrageous and one outraged character. As such it is well titled to get in line with Laverne & Shirley and Mork & Mindy, both of which were created by Garry Marshall, who has directed Billy & Ray as if an editor were scheduled to come along later to clean it up. The pace is glacial except when it’s suddenly furious; the tone wobbles like a toddler. The physical production is filled with gaucheries — especially in lighting and sound — that I can only assume are Marshall’s fault because the designers have produced fine work in the past. And the performances are all misguided. Neither Vincent Kartheiser (Mad Men’s Pete Campbell) as Wilder nor Larry Pine as Chandler, let alone Drew Gehling as Sistrom and Sophie von Haselberg as Helen, is allowed anywhere near a real characterization. Pine gets closest, suggesting in his physicality the long-term effects of too much unhappiness. And von Haselberg (whose parents are Bette Midler and the artist Martin von Haselberg) has, thank God, a great deal of charm. The part’s ridiculous, but you really want her to bring you one of those martinis.
The playwright has the excuse of being a relative novice. Marshall does not, certainly not in showbiz but also not in the theater. (He even built one, the Falcon, in Burbank.) Someone should have been able to point out to him, if he couldn’t see it himself, that the kinds of directorial interventions that help bring to life an Orkan alien, or a character like the one Midler herself played in Beaches, do not translate easily to a different medium. As the play almost manages to dramatize, nothing translates easily — even without the problem of a Production Code. At least the Production Code demanded that movie malefactors be seen to pay for their transgressions. Alas, there’s no such rule in the theater.
Billy & Ray is at the Vineyard Theatre through November 23.