Don Nigro's new play, City of Dreadful Night, which recently made its world premiere at Chicago's Den Theatre, is obviously inspired by 1940's film noir movies, but it's difficult to understand what the play's relationship to them is intended to be. In the play's early scenes, it seems as if Nigro is intent on both parodying the genre as well as rewriting the style of film noir in a hip, modern style in the manner of Quentin Tarantino or the Coen Brothers. The dialogue is rapid fire, with discussions on various topics such as pigeons and pie that seem to suggest we're seeing a spoof of the genre. The story begins with a jealous small-time hood, Gus (Matthew Isler) asking a friend, Tony (Sam Guinan Nyhart), to follow his girl, Anna (Justine C. Turner), on suspicion of infedelity. It's never explained what Tony actually does; we assume that he's a private eye of some kind, but he's a very bad one if he is. What we do know is that he's damaged; he sustained a head injury during combat in Anzio during World War II and had a steel plate inserted, and, as a result, his memory has largely faded. Tony's ability to follow Anna secretly doesn't last long, as she confronts him quickly after he begins. She seems drawn to him, suggesting that she's going to play the role of our femme fatale, but the dialogue she's given to seduce Tony with, in which she recommends that they get coffee and pie sometime at a diner across the street from her apartment building, is such an over-the-top double entendre that she seems like a Mae West-style parody of a femme fatale. Tony, with his slow speaking patterns, seems to suggest that head injury not only hurt his memory, but his cognition as well. Usually, the character at the center of a noir, whether it be Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, or even Mike Hammer, despite the danger he faced, (it was always a man) always had the toughness and smarts to get the better of the characters he came across. However, Tony is a clever incarnation of that other noir motif, the unreliable narrator; his memory loss leaves him with an inability to put together the clues that he comes across with the memories that may explain them.
For the play's first two thirds, it's hard to get a handle on where the plot is headed. Anna seems to be trying to seduce Tony, but Tony is reluctant. Anna seems obsessed with finding out about the details behind a photograph taken at Coney Island before the war, which features Tony, Gus, and a girl Tony can't recall, that is in Gus's bedroom. Anna is convinced that they murdered the girl, and spends much of the play attempting to get Tony to remember what happened. Tony and Anna meet at a deserted, off-season Coney Island, in which they reminisce about their lives before the war. At times, Nigro seems to be writing a scholarly essay on the history of film noir, as he constantly evokes the war and the effect it had on everyone's lives. In City of Dreadful Night, the war becomes The War, the great turning point that hardened the city and changed people's lives forever, producing the environment in which the genre flourished. In the play, we can see how the characters are affected by their experiences, but they aren't necessarily experiences that occurred during The War. One character who Tony enlists for help, the man behind the counter of the coffee shop named Philly (a name taken, no doubt, from the diner depicted in Edward Hopper's Nighthawks and played by Ben Hertel), didn't fight in the war, but seems scarred from his own experience, which includes having spent time in prison for an anonymous crime. Tony wants to enlist Philly for information, but his skittish personality seems to make him a very unreliable source.
The story's resolution untangles the many ambiguous plot threads and puts the play in a totally different context. Tony eventually confronts Anna and turns to violence, which seems to come out of nowhere. His emotional instability seems to cause these bursts of temper, which became nearly unwatchable as they increase, are finally put to rest by a timely entrance from Gus, who helps to account for Tony's behavior and explains many of the mysteries. The climactic scene occurs at the diner, as the final strands of the plot are unwoven and we finally get a complete sense of how the characters' neuroses and madness has driven them to do what they did. If the play is redeemed, it is in this final third, when the play goes from being an apparent sendup of noir to a study of madness. However, it's difficult to fit these two incongruous genres together, and I found myself asking which one the play was. Social paranoia may have been a staple of noir, but social insanity wasn't; that was more the territory of the Beats and their spiritual successors who came after them in the 1960's. In this sense, City of Dreadful Night is, though I am loath to use the term, a “postmodern” noir. It's acutely aware of movies and their influence on the audience's perceptions of the characters. There are frequent references to movies, the influence they have on our consciousness, and the characters' seeming inability to distinguish a movie plot from the one happening in real life.
The play's performances left much to be desired and contributed to hampering the its overall effectiveness. As Tony, Sam Guinan Nyhart spoke too slowly and had difficulty projecting the character's intelligence, which partially led to my assessment that the play was a parody. Matthew Isler's Gus seemed to be a parody of a tough guy rather than the real thing; in noir pictures, he would have been pushed around by the gumshoe, rather than the one doing the pushing, but here we're expected to believe that he's powerful, at least in this little game (we get no sense of what his life is like outside of the play's scenario.) Justine Turner's Anna seemed to be in the wrong play, as she gave a monochromatic interpretation of the moll's hysterics, though her behavior is somewhat explained in the play's resolution. Only Ben Hertel, as the coffee shop counter man, gave a believable interpretation; his jumpy behavior and his hurried speech gave the impression that the people he was confronted by were, in fact, intimidating. I also felt sympathy for him because he was forced to stay behind the counter for the entire play, even when he wasn't in a scene; the coffee shop counter, Anna'a apartment with its open windows across the street, and the park bench in front of her building all appeared in the same set, different parts being dimmed while the main action took place in one location. I think some of the blame for this interpretation must fall at the feet of the play's director, Ron Wells, who must have coached his players to give the interpretations that were ultimately confusing and detrimental to the play's overall effectiveness.
City of Dreadful Night will run at Chicago's Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave, from February 15 until March 16.