Lifeline Theatre

“Fiction in any form has always intended to be realistic,” writes Raymond Chandler in “The Simple Art of Murder,” his essay on the development of the British and American mystery story. “Old-fashioned novels which now seem stilted and artificial to the point of burlesque did not appear that way to the people who first read them.”

The Chicago-born, British-bred author of such detective novels as Farewell, My Lovely and The Big Sleep was an advocate of gritty realism who sought to shake the mystery genre free of the calculated gentility it had acquired at the hands of writers like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. But with the passage of time his books have come to seem as old-fashioned and mannered as those he was rebelling against–especially to people who’ve never read them, but know them only from the film adaptations. Chandler’s hard-boiled yet secretly softhearted private eye Philip Marlowe, who makes his way down the mean streets of post-World War II LA to ferret out the dirty truths behind even dirtier lies, can seem as much an anachronistic oddball as Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes if one pays attention only to dated surface elements like slang (“Anybody ever tell you you’re a cute little trick?”) and the expressionistic visual style defined to the point of cliche by 40s film noir. But delve into the original and you’ll find lean, taut, introspective character development and psychological and sociological observation that hasn’t aged a whit.

Aiming to shake off the dust Chandler’s image has acquired over the years, Lifeline Theatre has turned to The Little Sister, a 1949 novel that doesn’t have the cinematic familiarity of some of Chandler’s other works. The Little Sister actually was made into a movie–the 1969 Marlowe, a James Garner vehicle that reset the action to the hippie milieu of 60s California–and the Organic Theater did it here as a play in 1979 (designed by director Stuart Gordon as a vehicle for his wife Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, who played all three female leads). But neither of these adaptations made an impact comparable to Dick Powell in Murder, My Sweet or Bogart and Bacall in The Big Sleep, leaving Lifeline room to put its own stamp on the material.

Unfortunately, playwright Mark Richard and director Meryl Friedman fall prey to the very problem they’re trying to rectify: their vision of the book is gleaned from old movies, not from real life. Visually attractive and generally well acted, Lifeline’s Little Sister lacks the grit, suspense, and queasy sense of dread that permeate Chandler’s writing. The production’s very artfulness, impressive by off-Loop standards, hampers the drama it seeks to convey.

The first flaw is fundamental: Richard’s decision to split Marlowe between two actors. One Marlowe (Ed Shimp)–call him “spirit” because of his ghostly pale suit–tells the story with smiling, glib charm. The other (Frank Nall)–call him “earth” because of his brown suit and taciturn manner–enacts it. Occasionally the two interact: spirit Marlowe kicks a gun across the floor to his alter ego during a fight, and later lights his cigarette. The strategy is to preserve Chandler’s wonderfully wry first-person narrative as well as his wisecracking dialogue. But turning Marlowe into two guys makes the character’s inner turmoil so external that it’s too obvious. The effect is to distance the audience from the man whose emotional growth under pressure is the key to Chandler’s “gradual elucidation of character, which is all the detective story has any right to be about anyway” (as he writes in “The Simple Art of Murder”).

This distance gives the audience permission to laugh–not only where they’re supposed to (for Chandler’s writing is remarkably witty) but also where they’re not. When the alcoholic manager of a flophouse falls on the floor in a pathetic drunken heap, the viewers at the show I attended cracked up in superior bemusement. They took it as the campy exaggeration of a comfortably collegiate lampoon–because Richard and Friedman haven’t communicated the desperate stakes involved.

Similarly, Alan Donahue’s handsome but overly slick set and slide design and Peter Gottlieb’s self-consciously expressionistic lighting leave us watching lovely pictures rather than believing the story they depict. The stage is dominated by a large scrim onto which are projected softly colored pictures of palm trees and slanted shadows of Venetian blinds and ceiling fans–and behind which periodically appear the shadowy figures of the murdered men and seductive women whose intrigues motor the plot.

The women are especially crucial. There are three of them: Orfamay Quest (Catherine O’Connor), a sanctimonious small-towner who hires Marlowe to find her missing brother, and movie starlets Dolores Gonzalez (Suzanne Friedline) and Mavis Weld (Peggy Lee look-alike Laurie Dawn, the most interesting of the three). The actresses’ loose life-styles, at first a jarring contrast to Orfamay’s propriety, eventually serve as a gauge by which Chandler measures America’s moral hypocrisy. The women frequently appear as a 40s “girl trio,” lipsynching to pop songs like “Dream” (whose message that “things are not as they seem” becomes the show’s theme). It’s a lovely image the first time around–but repeated over the production’s two acts it becomes as much a cliche as anything Hollywood ever did.

The four supporting actors–Page Hearn, Sam Munoz, David Nava, and Warren Davis–handle their duties effectively as they slip in and out of a variety of roles; Davis is especially powerful as policeman Christy French, who delivers a passionate, bitter, and strikingly timely speech about the life of a cop in a cop-hating society. But even at their most admirable, none of the performers ever made me believe for a minute that I was somewhere other than a non- Equity theater in Rogers Park watching a bunch of people who had no stake whatsoever in Raymond Chandler’s moral world–“a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities,” as Chandler writes in “The Simple Art of Murder,” “. . . where no man can walk down a dark street in safety because law and order are things we talk about but refrain from practicing.” Though zoot suits and fedoras have long since had their day, the danger and corruption and wounded idealism of that world are still very much with us; but not in Lifeline’s period piece.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzanne Plunkett.