Canadian playwright George F. Walker’s Filthy Rich, now playing at Raleigh Little Theatre, is a parody of film-noir private-eye movies that is not quite the sparkling satire that it could be. Using The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler as a model for his convoluted plot in which high-society hellions rub elbows (and more) with lowlife members of organized crime, Walker is just too clever — not to mention, wordy — for his own good. Moreover, he doesn’t know when to leave well enough alone. So, by the end of Filthy Rich, there are more questions than answers.
When the curtain rises, it is 1945. Cynical investigative reporter-turned-novelist Tyrone M. Power, not the movie-star’s namesake, but the drunken anti-hero of Filthy Rich played at RLT by Larry Evans, has an epic case of writer’s block. Stinko most of his waking moments, Power slurs his speech, which frequently makes his acerbic commentary difficult to understand; and he staggers around his seedy office/apartment in a down-at-the-heels Big Apple office building beside an alley where a gypsy saxophonist blows jazz hot and sweet.
The film-noir ambience is thick on the splendidly realistic set devised by scenic designer Rick Young, in the moody atmospheric lighting scheme of lighting designer Roger Bridges, and in the flamboyant 1940s fashions recreated by costume designer Robin Cuevas; but the plot is thin and sometimes damned-near incomprehensible. Mayoral candidate Michael Harrison has joined Judge Crater as New York’s two most prominent missing persons.
Gangsters and/or corrupt aristocrats are suspected of snatching Harrison on the eve of the mayoral election. When an old friend of Power’s shows up in a ski mask with $500,000 in his brief case, only to be shot dead while climbing through Power’s office window from the fire escape, Power finds himself playing a lethal game of cat and mouse with a host of colorful characters, including ambitious college student moonlighting as a delivery boy Jamie McLean (Pepper Jobe), who wants to be an investigative reporter, too; sultry socialites Anne and Susan Scott (Mariette Booth and Megan Navarette); menacing mobster Henry “The Pig” Duval (Douglas Morales), who has already got his hooks into Anne Scott; and indefatigable Detective Stackhouse (David Coulter), who knows monkey business when he sees it and more and more suspects Michael Harrison may be the victim of foul play.
Brooke Dattner Linefsky, who is making her Triangle directing debut with Filthy Rich, scores a lot of points for style — the production superbly captures the film-noir feel in which ordinary events and things take on ominous overtones — but she fails to clarify some important plot points and she adds a drunken prologue in which Larry Evans staggers around the stage for far too long, doing far too little to generate any dramatic momentum.
Larry Evans, a usually reliable actor, slurs his speech a bit too much while playing Tyrone Power as a lush’s lush. Pepper Jobe proves to be a regular ball of fire as would-be muckraker Jamie McLean. Megan Navarette and especially Mariette Booth are excellent as women of mystery Susan and Anne Scott, Douglas Morales is positively frightening as tough-talking gangster Henry “The Pig” Duval, and David Coulter is good as Detective Stackhouse.
Whether it is a film or a novel or a play, the mark of a good film noir is that it leaves its audience smiling at how seemingly disparate events ultimately come together to provide a really satisfying roller-coaster ride of a story. Despite some imaginative staging and some crisp characterizations, I suspect Filthy Rich will leave far too many RLT audience members scratching their heads and wondering what all the hoorah was about.
Raleigh Little Theatre presents Filthy Rich Thursday-Saturday, April 13-15 and 20-22, at 8 p.m. in RLT’s Cantey V. Sutton Theatre, 301 Pogue St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $15-$20, except $12 Thursdays for students and seniors. 919/821-3111 or via etix at the presenter's site. Note: All shows are wheelchair accessible, and assistive listening devices are available for all. Raleigh Little Theatre: http://www.raleighlittletheatre.org/filthyrich.htm [inactive 5/06].