A Lighter Shade of Noir
Classic noir is the color this season in West Palm Beach. The Cuillo Centre for the Arts' current production, The Betrayal of Nora Blake, is a musical comedy billed as "musical noir." This spoof of the film-noir classics of the Thirties and Forties takes all the late-night B-movies you've ever seen or slept through and mixes them with the grand gestures of the silver screen and the showmanship of big musicals like South Pacific and Oklahoma! -- the whole thing set to a riotous tongue-in-cheek script and lyrics.
The play opens with the larger-than-life silhouettes of two women, a smoking gun, and a man lying in a pool of blood. In the opening number, "Amnesia," Nora (Christianne Tisdale) is dressed in outrageously chic prison garb: a stylishly belted, black-and-white-stripe trench coat. As she reels about the room "in the coils of amnesia," a maniacal prison matron (Patti Mariano) enters and places the prisoner's last supper at her feet (a plate of Spam). Nora is slated for execution in the electric chair at midnight for the murder of her lover, merchandizing magnate Spencer Wylie (Tom Galantich).
When Nora's fox-clad, bejeweled twin sister Laura (Amanda Naughton) strolls in to bid her farewell, Nora pleads with her to exchange identities for just a few hours while she hunts down her analyst, Dr. Jaffe (Tim Jerome), so he can hypnotize her and uncover the mystery: What happened during those fateful, forgotten six minutes that landed her in Sing Sing? Lamentably, loving sister Laura refuses, claiming that prison stripes are an unforgivable fashion faux pas in the number "Not My Color." Desperate, Nora knocks her sister out, throws on the fox wrap, and runs off to find her shrink.
From there the plot swings into a madcap series of flashbacks. Playwright John Meyer has scripted an unambiguous good-versus-evil plot, which follows the tradition of film-noir classics like Double Indemnity. We discover it's 1945, and Uncle Sam has a monopoly on crêpe de Chine. The Blake sisters, who are in the clothing biz, decide they are going "to haffeta do without taffeta": They spin gold from dross with an outrageously eccentric line of eveningwear crocheted from fishnet and chicken bones that becomes an overnight success. But when the dashing Spencer wants a piece of the action, savvy Laura intervenes to protect her interests.
In less skilled hands, such a ludicrous plot might easily collapse into sentimental drivel, but Meyer knows funny, having scripted comic material for the likes of Joan Rivers, Judy Garland, and Lily Tomlin, to name a few. His lyrics are beyond clever, boasting downright brilliant rhymes such as "retina" and "Mount Etna," "Spencer" and "Mensa," "Spoil" and "Daddy's girl," and, of course, "inbred" and "doody head." A sleazy saxophone, tiptoeing double bass, and racing piano accompany these rhymes to keep the show moving along swiftly, accentuating the play's humor. The best parodies show some affection for the genres they send up; The Betrayal of Nora Blake is no exception. This work is not just slick, tongue-twisting twaddle; it is superbly executed high camp. Meyer's script is outrageously over the top but not frivolous. It lampoons all the elements of a psycho-melodrama: classic sibling rivalry, a not-so-classic love triangle, the clairvoyant connection between twins, and the conventions of psychoanalysis and hypnosis.
The set design evinces both a dearth of funds and a wealth of imagination. The trompe l'oeil backdrop of New York City looks as if it jumped right out of the original Superman comics. Jesse Poleshuck's sleek Manhattan skyline also has movable pieces that march across stage on occasion. All this low-cost trickery lends itself to the parody because it reflects an era when set designs and sound effects were not supposed to be realistic. The play yearns for a bigger space than the Cuillo Centre for the Arts' apron stage can offer. Musicals are always a risky proposition in such intimate spaces, but the talented New York City actors here know how to work an audience. The cast plays with the proximity by filing up and down the aisles during a fashion-show scene and making abundant eye contact with spectators. Gregg Barnes's sensational period costuming is the icing on the cake. The twins are decked out in sophisticated matching coatdresses, high heels, and perfectly coifed platinum blond hairdos. The men sport well-tailored pinstripe suits and fedoras.
The supporting cast plays a series of bit parts: the hard-edged female warden; Laura's sleazy boyfriend, whose bad breath precedes his every cruel move; a Catholic priest with a lisp; and the wacky psychiatrist. Tisdale and Naughton are delightful to watch as the goody two-shoes and the vamp, respectively. Tisdale lets her hands frame her face in melodramatic pauses. Naughton has mastered a Joan Crawford-esque frozen statement in which her eyes dart from left to right as she plots and schemes. Both women show impeccable timing -- as do the entire cast and the crew. Everything meshes perfectly: gunshots, lightning, and the electric chair. As Laura's evil boyfriend, Jeffrey, Timothy Warmen takes the prize for versatility and comic transformation. At one point he grabs a steering wheel and tapes lights to his knees to pose as a cab driver. Later, when he peels off his mustache to expose his true identity, he makes a raucous ripping sound that takes the parody one step further.
Whereas most contemporary plays succeed based on their ability to toe the line between excess and economy of emotion, The Betrayal of Nora Blake revels in excess and the irreverent abundance of extremes. The good character is 100 percent good, the bad one relentlessly evil. That the group can pull this off is a testament to the mastery in each actor's performance and in the stellar direction of Nickolas Grace. Each player skillfully paints his or her character in full Technicolor with such an overcoat of irony that the result is a hilarious parody of the time period and genre, leading us to laugh at ourselves and the pleasure we take in such over-the-top humor.
The Betrayal of Nora Blake debuted in London in 1998 to rave reviews and is now headed for off-Broadway. A musical en route from London's West End to the Big Apple rarely makes a pit stop in West Palm Beach. South Florida theatergoers should definitely take advantage of this opportunity, whether they are film-noir addicts or not.
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