Culture

Film Noir Comes to Life Onstage in 'Kill Me Like You Mean It'

Nathan Darrow / Stolen Chair Theater

"House of Cards" star Nathan Darrow has stepped off the screen between seasons, currently inhabiting a world midway between the film noir classics and lurid crime fiction of yesteryear. Visitors to NYC's Fourth Street Theatre will find him stalking and back-talking his way through a new production of Stolen Chair's "Kill Me Like You Mean It," an original play that delights in playing on some very familiar tropes.

As in their 2013 run of the "live silent film" adaptation of The Man Who Laughs, the company has employed some techniques to simulate a cinematic experience: stage-hands rotate the furniture between scenes to provide different camera angles, their costumes and furtive actions suggesting the place is being ransacked by hired goons. The actors prowl through shadows cast by Venetian blinds, sometimes from several directions at once, and depending on where you sit, you may find yourself dappled as well: the house offers a limited number of onstage box seats.

These aesthetic flourishes satisfy the bare minimum that you'd expect from an homage to such a celebrated genre, but it wouldn't amount to much without a killer script. Fortunately this is the show's strongest point of all. The premise finds Mr. Darrow playing your typical hard-boiled detective facing a not-so-typical problem, in which his cases begin to echo a certain hack writer's "fictional" crime stories. Since the latest story spells doom for the detective's literary counterpart, this places him in very real jeopardy. Or does it?

In the hands of playwright Kiran Rikhye, truly any outcome seems possible. The characters reflect a smattering of Old Hollywood types run through a veritable Markov chain generator, but thanks to her gift for repetition and Lewis Carroll-ian word games, the results feel wholly original. Noir probably hasn't enjoyed this much sheer absurdity since "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" but Rikhye's script is more akin to something Charles Busch might have written in the fertile years between Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and Psycho Beach Party.

In other words, it's not just another period piece: it's an ardent film lover's collection of inside jokes, some much darker than others. The staging by director Jon Stancato matches the flow with the wordplay, arranging the actors in surreal configurations unlike anything you've seen outside of a musical. At any given moment Darrow might find himself standing in a bathtub or hurling a seemingly endless barrage of cigarettes across the stage floor, bending to the whims of unseen creative forces. The effect is dizzying and profoundly entertaining.

It helps that his cast-mates are so well chosen -- a veritable murderer's row of vamps and scamps keep him running in dizzy circles till the very end. As in even the best films of the genre, who does what to whom at the end is almost beside the point. Noir is a style, a shadow-world that springs up around us and then deteriorates as moral order erodes and then collapses entirely. For a brief time, modern audiences can experience this in person without having to worry about secondhand smoke, bullet holes, or being double-crossed by an otherwise classy dame.