It was a gusty New York night, a night for intrigue and murder ... a night for theater. Of all the plays in the world, I had to walk into this one. The press materials for Vermilion Wine describe it as a tribute to the film noir genre, comparing it to classics like The Maltese Falcon. But this nonsensical homage suffers for 90 minutes and then dies without eliciting an ounce of sympathy.
The story goes something like this: It's 1948, and broken-hearted private investigator Ian Sinclair's new case is to track down Mrs. Maureen Monroe's missing (and presumed dead) husband. To complicate matters, a mysterious woman is sending death threats to the sultry socialite, and that anonymous lady might be Sinclair's former lover Rebecca. Sinclair revisits the grimier parts of his past and scrubs the truth out of a dirty situation, where rival P.I.'s, cross-dressing criminals, and a lawman with a grudge are all gunning for him. The show culminates with a four-way Mexican standoff that barely any of the characters survive.
So what did in Vermilion Wine? There are many suspects that could be responsible for this theatrical homicide.
A likely perpetrator is Hunter Tremayne's script, which clumsily skirts the thin line between tribute and satire. Vermilion certainly is a pastiche of film noir elements, like rapid-fire dialogue and stock characters such as a shamus and a femme fatale. But the dialogue is meandering, and its analogies sound more like vocabulary exercises. Irrelevant exchanges like "even a worm can dig too deep," "if you cut a worm in two, you get two worms," and "then I guess you'd have to love me twice as much" are overused to the point of annoyance.
Consistently, Tremayne's language opts for a heavy-handed style over substance. With a little tweaking this might work, yet some portions of the script are totally out of sync with the exaggerated film noir style. A poem written by Sinclair, for example, contains archaic words like "thee" and "thou." Unevenness like this hampers any potential the script might have had. I won't even touch on the ending, except to say that I have never known a noir piece to end with characters in heaven.
Tremayne's direction is also a little fishy. At times the audience is asked to take the play's incongruent world seriously, like the climactic gunfight with plastic guns that are not synchronized with their sound effects. We are supposed to laugh at other moments, as when Sinclair's partner limps around clownishly after being shot. This disparity might have been tolerable, if not for some directorial choices that were downright bizarre. For instance, there are two references to Sinclair being English, even though he is clearly depicted as an American. (Tremayne, who is English, played Sinclair in a previous production.)
Later, Sinclair visits an insane asylum where offstage cast members yell out "crazy talk" that sounds more like a gaggle of gremlins than a ward of disturbed patients. This was obviously intended to add a sense of darkness and danger to the scene, but all it did was make the audience snicker.
The cast members all have strong alibis. Some are required to perform strange material, but all commit fully to their roles. Phil Horton plays the Humphrey Bogart clone Sinclair without shying away from his clichéd character in the slightest. A poor young woman playing a waitress wears, perhaps, the most unflattering costume ever—a skimpy, cigarette-girl outfit that must have been ordered without her measurements on hand—and still makes it work. (The role of the waitress is uncredited, perhaps out of self-defense.) All the ensemble members dig deep into their characters, like a gumshoe trying to crack a case that doesn't have a solution.
With limited resources, technical director Pam Gittlitz creates some effective lighting that evokes the shadowy expressionism of film noir, but several confusing design elements were not vital to the play at all. Even though everyone in the theater could clearly hear when Sinclair dialed a rotary phone, a "dialing" sound effect was used. There are several anachronisms, too. In a story set in the 40's, Sinclair sings along to the Peggy Lee song "Fever," which wouldn't be released until 1958. Overall negligence like this betrays a production team that paid attention to all the wrong details.
In the end, it is sloppiness and inconsistency that undoes this play. The actors do their best, but the material, aside from a few snatches of decent dialogue, is terminally unworkable, even laughable.