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Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast

Double Indemnity
Dog Days Theatre
Review by William S. Oser | Season Schedule

Also see Bill's review of Doublewide

Katie Cunningham and Erik Meixelsperger
Photo by Gary M. Sweetman
For its second production, Dog Days Theatre is presenting Double Indemnity by James M. Cain, adapted for the stage by David Pichette and R. Hamilton Wright.

The classic Billy Wilder film, rated #38 by the American Film Institute on their list of 100 Greatest American Films and recognized as setting the standard for film noir, adapted for the stage? The first question that comes to mind is why? It's a great story only in terms of the genre—I don't see that it offers much in the way of illuminating the human condition, so why this choice by Dog Days Theatre's powers that be? Give me three minutes and I could come up with a dozen titles that would offset the hilarious comedy of their first offering this season, Relatively Speaking: perhaps an issue-oriented drama or a small-scale musical.

The genre of film noir leans heavily on huge close ups of characters as they begin to realize the ramifications of some plot twist, and how it is likely to play out in terms of their lives as well, as the camera's ability to make the stories feel claustrophobic. Both of these idiosyncrasies are impossible to replicate on stage. All the lighting in the world—and the dark and foreboding lighting design here, by Michael Pasquini, is outstanding—cannot illuminate the details that masterful camera work did in the glory days of American movie making. Gothic, film noir and suspense are three closely related genres of films. Gothic gets up on stage and becomes comic (Irma Vep, The 39 Steps) and suspense is rarely tried. For a brief moment at the very beginning of this production, I wondered if the authors were not going to take this detour into comedy, but that did not happen.

Erik Meixelsperger is our hapless hero, Walter Hull, an insurance salesman who is lured into a murderous plot by the shapely gams belonging to Phyllis Nirlinger, played by Katie Cunningham. This gal spells danger with a capitol "D." Both are aided by fantastic period costumes by David Covach, hers extensive, suitable for our femme fatale. Both get off to a really good start with physicality suitable to the 1940s, but the inability to show us details of facial expressions quickly sabotages them and we are left with performances that lack emotional specificity. The supporting cast includes Douglas Jones as Keys, an investigator for the insurance company, Don Walker, looking dapper as Phyllis's rich husband, Sara Linares as his daughter, Wes Tolman as her boyfriend and Phyllis's plaything when she gets bored with Walter, and Mike Perez as the assistant insurance investigator.

Greg Leaming and Jesse Joy do the directing honors, and they do keep things moving briskly, with the aid of a fluid setting by Steven Kemp, but it is all for naught. The cliches of the story are perfect for the black and white movies of a by-gone era but just do not work well on stage. There is nothing wrong with the production that could be fixed, it's just that the stage is the wrong medium for this story. The only time I have ever seen noir properly presented on stage is in the brilliant Cy Coleman/David Zippel musical City of Angels, and as much as I think it is a masterpiece, it has many detractors who consider it a mess and impossible to follow, so the opinion on that one is far from unanimous.

Wig design by Michelle Hart is, as always, magnificent. Guessing that she also had a hand in hair-styling, I would like to point out an excellent detail that jumped out at me. Mr. Meixelsperger's hair has a full part, common in the 1940s, very unusual today. Annette Breazeale's props are period perfect. Sound design by Rew Tippin is effective. Kelly A. Borgia is the stage manager of a busy production.

Dog Day Theatre's launch has been a successful one and a return next season is guaranteed with a grant from Sarasota tourist tax dollars in hand. Double Indemnity turns out not to be the savviest of choices but will still entertain audiences. Let's hope for better picks for next season.

Dog Days Theatre's Double Indemnity, through August 27, 2017, at the Cook Theater in the FSU Center. 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Box Office (941) 351-8000. For more information visit

Cast (in order of appearance):
Walter Huff: Erik Meixelsperger
Phyllis Nirlinger: Katie Cunningham*
Keyes: Douglas Jones*
Lola Nirlinger/Nettie: Sara Linares
Herbert Nirlinger: Don Walker
Nino Sachetti/Jackson: Wes Tolman
Norton: Mike Perez
*=member of Actors' Equity Association

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