Puppet Noir, Billy Goat Experiment Theatre Company, at the Broadway Armory. Riding the crest of two related waves–environmental performance and superintimate presentation–Puppet Noir sidesteps the shtick-over-substance pitfalls of both, thanks to a knowing script steeped in genre conventions and a crack cast more than equal to the show’s hard-boiled poses and language. The crumbling corridors of the leviathan armory, through which characters guide the audience in groups of four, make a marvelous backdrop. And the dashes of puppetry adorning the whole, even when arbitrary, are justified by superior technique. What this retro confection lacks is the one thing no noir can do without: a truly mindbending tangle of a plot.

Not that Cat Jarboe’s pulpy tale doesn’t have its twists, but they’d barely suffice as setup for the second act of a Thompson or Chandler novel. While individual scenes display an exquisite feel for smoldering, stylized banter, they generally take too long to establish a relationship or action. And the conclusion, though surprising enough, offers too slight a payoff for a two-hour ride.

Viewed as mood piece or installation, though, Puppet Noir is a creepy treat. Garbled radio and film recordings clatter from beyond every corner, the hoary walls breathing with the corruption of whatever came before crack houses and shooting galleries, faded photos and historical asides heightening the eerie effect. And of course watching actors this good up close–especially Michael Serwich, David Weeks, Courtney Lengyel, and Todd Zaruba–is a pleasure in itself.