Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Seattle

An Uneven Double Indemnity Unfolds at ACT Theatre

Carrie Paff and John Bogar
James M. Cain, whose novella Double Indemnity has been adapted for the ACT stage by lauded Seattle theatre fixtures David Pichette and R. Hamilton Wright, also gave the world such noir titles as The Postman Always Rings Twice and Mildred Pierce, all of which became celebrated films in the 1940s. Maybe it's just that noir ain't what it used to be, but this Double Indemnity, which is definitely not camped up, just felt to me like a meandering exercise, all style and little substance.

The plot concerns an insurance salesman who stumbles into an ill-fated romance with the wealthy, cool, blonde wife of one of his clients who concocts a scheme to bump off her hubby and collect double indemnity on the policy payoff. But things go awry, as they often do in such tales, and the ill-fated pair doesn't get to live happily ever after. You know the basics of all this if you've ever seen the once smoldering intensity brought to the roles by Fred MacMurray (a capable movie bad guy when given the role) and Barbara Stanwyck (who had hard-assed dames down pat in any number of her movies).

Director Kurt Beattie has mixed results eliciting just the right tone and pitch in his two leads. John Bogar's insurance man Walter Huff, who also narrates the tale, has a bit of a stolid line delivery and seems to remain too cool when things are heating up in the wake of the murder. Carrie Paff as the wife, Phyllis Nirlinger, is visually pitch perfect, gowned in the best of Annie Smart's sumptuously well-realized 1930s costumes, but she lacks a gutsy undercurrent, which keeps her femme a bit removed from being fatale. Far more successful is always watchable character actor Richard Ziman, as both the doomed Nirlinger, and especially in his other role as Keyes, Huff's insurance company associate who determinedly finds evidence to uncover Phyllis and Walter's ruse. Jessica Martin as Nirlinger's daughter (Phyllis' step-daughter) Lola brings all the right intrigue and mystery to the role, and the actress also scores chuckles as old-maid insurance secretary Nettie. While I was not wowed by Mark Anderson Phillips as Lola's on and off again beau Nino, the actor is incredibly effective and period evoking in the role of probing insurance lawyer. Beattie's slow pacing of the show makes the early-going exposition feel tedious, when it is going for capturing the mood.

The touchstone of this production is its physical and technical virtuosity. Thomas Lynch's scenic design, utilizing two turntables, is a feast for the eyes and helps the show obtain an almost cinematic feel. Smart's aforementioned costumes, Rick Paulsen's lighting design, Brendan Patrick Hogan's sound design, and Adam Stern's notably mood-setting musical score all work together to rank this as one of the top shows, production value-wise, this season.

The last time I saw a noir that felt like the real deal was the Polanski film Chinatown, and that was over 30 years ago. Double Indemnity seems to have been a labor of love for the director and adapters. For me, it was more of a labor to become engulfed in.

Double Indemnity runs at ACT through November 20th. For tickets or further information, contact the ACT box office at 206-292-7676 or visit ACT online at

Photo: Chris Bennion

- David Edward Hughes

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