In a comedic homage to 1950s film noir, Hitchcock thrillers (listen for the Bernard Hermann music of North by Northwest), hard-boiled detective and cop stories like Chinatown, The Maltese Falcon, and L.A. Confidential, The City That Cried Wolf cleverly slices into modern themes of law enforcement corruption, machine politics, discrimination, bigotry, scapegoating, greed, fraud, criminal quid pro quos, and more.
The shimmering vibrance of State of Play Productions’ 10-year-anniversary presentation of The City That Cried Wolf, initially performed in 2007 at 59E59 Theaters, is due to the solid direction by Leta Tremblay. She incisively shepherds the enterprising, spot-on cast, design team and production crew to tease out the brilliance of the source material by Brooks Reeves. Together they just let it all gloriously shine.
Brooks Reeves squeezes out every drop of humor possible using puns, allusions, irony, quips, hyperbole, and exaggeration to spin his noir whodunit, the backdrop of which he innovatively cobbles together using nursery rhyme and fairy tale characters, places and scenarios intermingled with plots from mystery-detective novels and film noir. Jack B. Nimble is the PI who narrates his story in flashback, and we hear the echoes of Humphrey Bogart in his gravel-voiced, ironic tones and see the angled profile of a young Jack Nicholson complete with a fedora and light suit right out of Chinatown.
Jack’s narrative and flashback are a steady drip of film noir. The action takes place in Rhyme Town. We learn about Rhyme Town in a prologue delivered in black and white film projected on a makeshift screen/curtain from which a superb Adam La Faci as Nimble later emerges. Jack narrates; Rhyme Town is not a “happily ever after kind of city;” it is “dark,” and a “place children glimpsed between dreams.” Immediately, the humor pops and we are alerted to look for the take down of the detective noir mystery genre and the often overlooked sinister nursery rhymes and sub rosa malevolence of fairy tales which are actually frightening. One wonders why, for centuries, they were read to children at all.
As Nimble revisits the past, throughout, he editorializes in Reeves funny, ironic, and sometimes poetic prose. When La Faci emerges from behind the curtains as the prologue ends, the action turns to the present-past. We are deep in the flashback as we follow Nimble who meets Councilman Humpty Dumpty (the versatile, funny, and gifted Dalles Wilie in one of the many roles he plays). Dumpty hires Nimble to follow his wife, singer Bovery Peep (the sultry, songbird Little Bo Peep is portrayed by the excellent Rebecca Spiro), because she is essentially vacant for their marriage; they haven’t “incubated” in a long while. After Jack travels to Club Hey Diddle Diddle, where he is enticed by the voice and beauty of Bo Peep but given the brush off, he takes a taxi through dangerous wolf territory (wolves are villains which have been blowing down houses indiscriminately), to again meet Dumpty at the seedy Rapunzel Tower, answering Dumpty’s urgent phone call.
Complications and conflicts arise. Though the terrorist wolves have been blowing down buildings, Jack is reminded by the taxi driver, a billy goat (Dalton Davis is brilliant in the various roles he takes on), that the wolves’ days are numbered. The soon-to-be-passed Anti-Predator law will round them up and imprison them all. When Jack finally arrives at Dumpty’s apartment, he is shocked to come upon the long standing, venerable Chief of Police, Mother Goose (Michelle Concha is perfect), and her two police goons, The Brothers Grim (Wilie and Davis).
They are there to investigate a suicide, perhaps a murder. Dumpty’s! Thus, once again, a nursery rhyme of Rhyme Town comes true: “Humpty Dumpty took a great fall” (the egg jokes, turns of phrase and puns about the horses and king’s men are sardonic and clever). Mother Goose offers to return Jack’s badge if he helps on the Dumpty case and finds Bo Peep who’s gone missing.
Nimble is forced to leap, dash, and jump through deceptive hoops and flimsy walls to solve Dumpty’s murder and discover the underpinnings of what is going on. The conflicts escalate, the digressions digress even further, and Jack slips us through them all with his gritty revelations about Bo Peep with whom he has an affair.
In a take down from a dramatic scene with Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway in Chinatown, Reeves flips what was one of the more shocking revelations in Chinatown into an absolutely hysterical bit by Nimble-Adam La Faci and Bo Peep-Rebecca Spiro. Yet, playwright Reeves crafts the scene beautifully with reverent-irreverence, reminding us of the original Chinatown screenplay and performances by Nicholson and Dunaway. In homage La Faci and Spiro balance the humor with reality and bring the crucial revelation in The City That Cried Wolf to humorous life. As Peep reveals who she is and why, Jack woefully solves the crimes, notes the corruptions, and nearly is killed, himself. The threads are neatly tied, but the outcome is dastardly. As intimated in the beginning, good overcomes evil to a point, but evil continues. There is still work to be done.
There are songs integrated into the Club Hey Diddle Diddle scene and elsewhere and a choreographed number, the tango-a dance of treachery and foretaste of death, is smoothly performed by La Faci and Concha as Nimble and Mother Goose during the Rhyme Town Ball. The fast set changes and multi-purpose set design, staging and costume designs suggesting the various beasts of the nursery rhymes and fairy tales are wonderfully conceptualized and executed. Together, they allow the fast-paced action to be maintained seamlessly throughout. Peppering this multi-genre production with music and dance along with the witticisms, the original reworking of a potentially hackneyed storyline, makes for a rollicking, high quality evening that is immensely diverting and sheer fun.
Most importantly, the underbelly of human nature is what Reeves displays in all of its rancid rottenness, but with a teaspoonful of sugar to help the sorry, bitter medicine go down. This is perhaps the greatest feature of this very fine production that entertains from start to finish. We are able to leave the theater uplifted with laughter, but also haunted by the tainted message of humanity’s capabilities in an election year.
This must-see production of The City That Cried Wolf is at 59E59 Theaters in New York City. The presentation runs until December 11 without an intermission and is ninety minutes. The actors not mentioned who are equally wonderful and round out the cast include Holly Chou and Gwenevere Sisco. You may click for tickets HERE.