Shifty villains indeed abound in All Kinds of Shifty Villains, Disgraced Productions’s delightful if rather two-dimensional film noir spoof, now playing at the Kraine Theater. So does a silent, affable, rubber-limbed circus clown in a red nose. But is the clown a villain? And are the villains of the noir world – the femme fatale, the ambitious maniac, the cops and robbers – actually a carload of sad clowns? All Kinds of Shifty Villains, scripted by Robert Attenweiler and directed by Rachel Klein, asks these questions, none too seriously. The answers they come up with are more fun than a phone booth full of Maltese Falcons. This is the kind of noir story that opens with a hardboiled, womanizing private eye, Max Quarterhorse, gamely played by Joe Stipek. As the San Francisco fog lifts, Quarterhorse is trying to quit smoking and drinking because, among other reasons, the local police precinct has banned these pastime. The cops don’t want it to "turn into a graveyard” or “a drunk tank.” While they’re worrying about atmosphere and sobriety, a lunatic is planting bombs around the city, a femme fatale has a secret, Quarterhorse’s secretary, “the kid,” desperately wants him to realize that she’s a woman, and a matronly arms dealer’s pair of thuggish sons face an agonizing decision: cereal for breakfast, or whisky?
As deftly directed by Klein, the physical comedy is broad, balletic, and reminiscent of the Marx brothers and Charlie Chaplin. Each member of the ensemble cast has developed a specific body language for his or her character, which makes up for the deliberately cardboard characterizations.
Attenweiler's dialogue is often raucous with whimsical absurdism. "You came here for something," one of the thug brothers accuses Quarterhorse, "and something can turn into prison bars, just as cereal can turn into whisky." Some jokes, however, are tired and predictable. The woman who wants to be kidnapped because it’s the only way to indulge her rope fetish isn’t surprising at first, and gets less interesting the longer the gag (no pun intended) is played out. When Attenweiler gets the absurdities of the noir genre right, he gets them very right. "Max is sure" that a bomb "is on the roof!" one cop shouts at another. “Right!” the other cop replies, “We'll check the rest of the building!"
Lisa Soverino's lighting design aptly creates the dim spaces and chiaroscuro of the films. Emily Taradash's costumes look like Halloween costume knockoffs of classic 1930s-40s attire. The costumes impressively survive what must be the considerable stress of circus-style performance.
Noir is built on suspense, and sometimes this play is too silly and too loosely structured to have any. The action goes on for quite some time after the last bomb threat is neutralized, and the characters are not fully developed enough to incite anxiety as to whether they will find fulfillment as well as safety. This is largely the same kind of trouble that weakens Broadway’s otherwise brilliant and funny vintage-film spoof Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps. Like its bumbling cops, All Kinds of Shifty Villains doesn’t look into anything too deeply, but is certainly amusing.