* * *
Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder wrote the screenplay for “Double Indemnity” together in 1943, then spent the rest of their lives griping about one another. Chandler found Wilder’s breezy, bossy, self-assured manner so grating that he briefly quit the picture, later claiming that working with the younger man “was an agonizing experience and has probably shortened my life.” As for Wilder, he was equally exasperated by Chandler’s touch-me-not gentility, and since he outlived his co-author by four decades, he got the last word: “Apparently he had resigned because, while we were sitting in the office with the sun shining through, I had asked him to close the curtains and I had not said please.”
Now Mike Bencivenga has transformed their edgy but productive collaboration into an Off-Broadway play called “Billy & Ray,” and he’s persuaded Garry Marshall, who is best known for such big- and small-screen projects as “Pretty Woman” and “Laverne and Shirley,” to direct. It’s a neat idea on paper, but Mr. Bencivenga has come up with a glib, sitcom-flavored show that works well enough on stage—much of the second act is actually quite involving—but will still strike those who already know how “Double Indemnity” got written as something of a lost opportunity….
Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced,” which won last year’s Pulitzer Prize for drama, has arrived on Broadway after successful runs in Chicago and at Lincoln Center Theatre. It’s about Amir (Hari Dhillon), a deracinated Pakistani émigré who renounces Islam as “a backward way of thinking,” moves to New York, marries a white painter with an acutely inflamed case of liberal guilt (Gretchen Mol) and becomes a hotshot litigator at a Jewish law firm, at which point he suddenly realizes that his Muslim roots go far deeper than his wife and colleagues ever suspected.
This is a genuinely provocative premise for an issue-driven play, and Mr. Akhtar deserves much credit for grappling honestly and forthrightly with what in other hands could easily have become a mealy-mouthed exercise in can’t-we-all-get-along difference-splitting. Unfortunately, his dramaturgy isn’t as impressive as his nerve. Not only do his characters spend far too much of the evening making speeches to one another, but every “surprise” is telegraphed so far in advance of its eventual arrival that you find yourself getting actively impatient for the reveals….
* * *
To read my review of Billy & Ray, go here.
To read my review of Disgraced, go here.
My favorite speech from Billy Wilder’s 1944 film version of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, featuring Edward G. Robinson: