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Theater Review (NYC): Two Detectives

Playwright Daniel Landon tries valiantly to capture the spirit of Dashiell Hammett, Mickey Spillane, Raymond Chandler, and other film noir classics with his new play Two Detectives, which opened Wednesday for a brief workshop run.  The Manhattan Repertory Theatre is presenting the production in association with The Cameron Company, which is making its debut as an Off-Off Broadway theatre company.

The play has an intriguing premise.  Set in Manhattan and Brooklyn in the summer of 1999, it centers around Bobby Sullivan (James Venable), a former beat cop, now private detective, who is handed a case involving the disappearance of 65-year-old Jacob Lasky (Timothy J. Cox).  Lasky is a garment district employee, concentration camp survivor, and manic depressive who is looking to get out from the family business now run by his daughter Rachel.

Hired by Rachel (Olivia Roric), Bobby and his partner Gino (Basil Meola) dive into the case, searching for clues but getting nowhere fast. After coming up with nothing, they are paid a visit by the police (George Raboni and Joe Grimaldi) and the real Rachel Lasky (Shannon J. Walker, in a scene right out of Chinatown). Bobby and Gino dig deeper and discover that there's more to the case, including kidnapping, the Russian mob, lots of money, and murder.

Bobby also discovers that his own father Tommy (Kevin Kelleher), a former cop himself, may be connected to the case. Bobby and Tommy have a strained relationship as it is, but this case could tear them apart forever. Complicating matters even further for Bobby is his intimate relationship with Raisa, the first Rachel Lasky, but in reality a Russian con artist and femme fatale who's also involved up to her eyeballs in this whole mess.

Murder, betrayal, sex, money – this play has a lot going on. Landon's script is very smart and well versed in the lingo that Chandler, Spillane, and Hammett made so famous. The last half of the play could use a trim, but that's not my biggest criticism. The production clocked in at a ridiculous two hours and 40 minutes and frankly, I'm still wondering how that was possible. Film noir is supposed to be delivered with machine-gun precision. Look at the classics and you'll see rat-a-tat-tat delivery. While many scenes in Two Detectives popped with great energy and enthusiasm, an alarming percentage dragged on for no discernible reason other than I what suspect were attempts at dramatic effect.

It didn't work, and the blame must go to the inexperienced direction of Chelsea Landon, whose staging and pacing throughout were downright ponderous. In addition, her stage (too small to accomodate a cast of twelve) was often cluttered with very poor facsimiles of real furniture, while her scene changes featured silly orchestral versions of 80's pop songs like the Eurhythmics' Sweet Dreams Are Made of This and The Cranberries' Zombie that elicited giggles from more than a few members of the audience.

It didn't help matters that actor James Venable was ill at ease in stepping into the shoes of Robert Mitchum and Humphrey Bogart (admittedly a daunting task for any actor) as detective Bobby Sullivan. Venable lacked the toughness, confidence, and poise to pull the role off. 

All was not lost, though. The production did feature a gallery of solid performances from the supporting cast, who managed to rise above the poor direction and cramped space. Standouts included Kelleher, superb as Bobby’s father Tommy, and Basil Meola, who brought humor (much needed) and charm to the role of Bobby's partner Gino. Timothy J. Cox delivered an explosive turn as Jacob Lasky, while both George Raboni and Joe Grimaldi were spot on as police detectives Lopez and Kawalski, respectively. Einar Gunn was also top-notch as a fellow concentration camp survivor and friend of Jacob Lasky.

After the performance I heard chatter that the show may be extended in the coming weeks. For this production to be successful, however, it needs a lot of work. Meanwhile, If you want to view some great film noir, stick with the classics like The Maltese Falcon, Chinatown, Touch of Evil, and Out of the Past.  

Two Detectives closed Saturday Night.

About Hannah Marie Ellison