Charged with the task of turning a sordid novel by James M. Cain into a film that could get past the stringent government decency codes of the time, Billy Wilder, played by Vincent Kartheiser, and Raymond Chandler, played by Larry Pine, team up as first time collaborators. Hollywood movies of the time were not allowed to depict murder, sex, or use profane language. Chandler and Wilder must find a way to show the seedy side of life without actually showing anything explicitly on the screen.
Given this formidable task and possessing artistic styles that are wildly disparate, Billy and Ray must find a way to have meeting of the minds as their producer stresses and the studio threatens to kill the project.
A great deal of the joy of this production is that through Billy and Ray’s creative arguments, we gain insight not only into two brilliant talents, but also two souls dealing with different personal demons. Mr. Wilder’s family is in a concentration camp and Mr. Chandler is fighting alcoholism.
Billy and Ray is superb play about a superb movie because of another superb two-man team:
Garry & Mike
Garry is famed director Garry Marshall. Mike is marvelous playwright Mike Bencivenga. Perhaps their collaboration was less fractious that Wilder and Chandler. Perhaps not. We won’t know until someone writes about them. Together they created a continuously entertaining and engaging play about collaboration, compromise, and compassion.
What makes Mike Bencivenga’s script so engaging is that as he keeps us laughing, he deepens and broadens the story by giving us a sense of concentrically ever-larger circles: two men, Hollywood, the United States, and the world at the time. When Billy Wilder, an Austrian Jew who escaped Hitler, initially signs on to a film ending involving death by gas, he becomes painfully aware of it’s inappropriateness and the connection to how his parents may have perished. Bencivenga, using the same gifts as Wilder and Chandler did in Double Indemnity, does not directly say this, but he skillfully implies it.
Mr. Bencivenga is adroit at getting laughs but equally gifted at giving us insight into the lives of these great talents and the world they lived in. Larry Pine is compelling and sympathetic as a cantankerous Raymond Chandler who fits not one stereotype of what we think he would be like. Vincent Kartheiser plays Billy Wilder with boyish enthusiasm. The cast is rounded out ably by Sophie von Haselberg as the secretary and Drew Gehling as producer Joe Sistrom. All of these actor’s are perfectly directed by Garry Marshall.
I highly recommend that you see Billy & Ray but with one caveat. While Bencivenga slips in many of the great lines and exchanges from the movie into his play and this production can be enjoyed just by itself, if you wish to have an even better experience — see the movie first. It’s a homework assignment you should relish. Double your enjoyment by seeing “Double Indemnity” and then immediately head to the Vineyard Theater to see “Billy & Ray.”
Billy & Ray
By Mike Bencivenga; directed by Garry Marshall; sets by Charlie Corcoran; costumes by Michael Krass; lighting by Russel H. Champa; music and sound by David Van Tieghem; production stage manager, Eric Insko; production manager, Adrian White; general manager, DR Theatrical Management; associate director, Joseph Leo Bwarie. Presented by Vineyard Theater, Douglas Aibel and Sarah Stern, artistic directors; Jennifer Garvey-Blackwell, executive producer, by special arrangement with Nice Productions. At the Vineyard Theater, 108 East 15th Street, 212-353-0303, vineyardtheatre.org. Through Nov. 23. Running time: 2 hours.