David Mogentale and Carol Sirugoin High Priest of California(Photo © Fouad Salloum)
David Mogentale and Carol Sirugo
in High Priest of California
(Photo © Fouad Salloum)
The decision makers at the 29th Street Rep have often looked for elements of film noir in the plays they've mounted since 1988. So, not surprisingly, they've succumbed to temptation and mounted a play noir. It's Charles Willeford's , which was a novel before being adapted by its author for the stage. This, by the way, isn't the only time 29th Street Rep's co-artistic heads Tim Corcoran and David Mogentale have turned to work that began as fiction. Confer their acclaimed South of No North, adapted from Charles Bukowski's obsessive writings about California down-and-outers. They tackled that hard-bitten tome three years ago.

It's not especially difficult to see what in High Priest of California hooked Corcoran and Mogentale. Like the Bukowski piece, it's set in San Francisco, and some of the shady 1953 characters pocking it like potholes on an old asphalt road are the kinds of blasted men and women that the dedicated 29th Street Rep grit-and-gritted-teeth company gets a hoot out of impersonating. These are characters for whom the term "moral code" draws a complete blank, either because they're too brain-damaged to recognize it or too convinced that morals are pointless obstacles to getting through the rotten realities of everyday life.

Actually, the folks Willeford dreamed up (nightmared up?) are, for the most part, a cut above the grifters and drifters whom the company usually chooses to impersonate. It may make sense to say the neighborhoods these California denizens inhabit are more familiar from Dashiell Hammett's San Francisco writings than Bukowski's. Russell Haxby (Mogentale) is a used-car salesman who wouldn't bother hawking new cars because, as he boasts, he has no time for virgins of any sort. A smooth-talker who makes a cool $250 a week, he's been picked up at a dance by repressed Alyce Victor (Carol Sirugo). He acquiesced, he tells her outright, by her forthright yet malleable demeanor.

Alyce, though, is married to Blackie Victor (James E. Smith), and can't keep the secret from Russell once she's brought him home to her dreary apartment. (Its grey-brown dreariness is cannily suggested by Mark Symczak's deeply-receding set.) Okay, Blackie is a Bukowski figure. He's a former boxer now so punchy he barely remembers his own name, a condition causing Alyce's live-in cousin Ruthie (Paula Ewin) to call him "Dummy." As Willeford has it, Ruthie has her own inamorata raiding Alyce's off-stage refrigerator. His name is Stanley (Jerry Lewkowitz), and in the Ruthie-Stanley pairing, he's the married one. Ruthie is his terminally-ill wife's nurse, and she's prepared to wait things out.

Because Alyce is hungry for a man and because Russell has decided he's going to be her personal meals-on-wheels, he sets about bending marital conventions until they snap. The two of them pass the play's three acts (performed with only one intermission) breaking down the conventional barriers between them. Alyce wants to kiss Russell (and by implication wants to surrender much more), but she stiffens whenever he approaches. Russell, above no deceitful tactic, works every angle to win her over and that includes concocting ultimately successful schemes to get Blackie out of the way and take possession of Alyce without agreeing to want what she demands: marriage.

High Priest of California is noir, all right snickering at the uses and abuses of blackness and victory. Black is a recurring theme. Blackie Victor is discovered watching television in a black boxing robe with the words "Blackie Victor" emblazoned on its back. Alyce, expecting Russell for lunch the day after she's met him, dons a black suit that fashion-critical Ruthie insists to brighten up with a daffodil. (Costume designer Michele Metcalf provides the right theme-oriented outfits and also the right suits, narrow ties and pork-pie hats Russell Haxby sports.) As well as playing on blackness, thriller-writer-playwright Willeford mocks his spiritually and literally injured figures by making the ill-matched Victors such obvious losers. Bad luck rains on their heads as incessantly as rain comes down in buckets, thanks to Tim Cramer's act-three sound design.

Mogentale and Sirugo(Photo © Fouad Salloum)
Mogentale and Sirugo
(Photo © Fouad Salloum)
Author Willeford's name isn't obscure to hard-boiled detective fans; he created Hoke Mosley (played by Fred Ward in the 1990 movie treatment of Miami Blues). By the time of his death in 1988, the busy novelist had attracted a following among readers and colleagues. James Lee Burke once wrote about him, "If someone wanted advice about writing, about how to pull it off, make it work, punch it up... Charles could tell you how to do it." On the evidence of his transferring High Priest of California to the boards, however, he doesn't seem to have been able to offer himself the best advice or, failing that, didn't find anyone else as accomplished in giving dramaturgical tips as he is passing along the wise fiction-writing word.

In leaping from page to stage, Russell Haxby and Alyce Victor seem somewhat diluted and, in Haxby's case, slightly less easy to fathom. He explains what draws him to Alyce, but what he says seems insufficient. Ambiguity is, of course, a staple pulp-fiction ingredient, but somehow the ambiguity has to be a bit more unambiguous. Another way to put it might be to quote the novel's opening sentences, which goes, "She was leaning against the door. Her smile was a sickly twisted grimace, the sort a prisoner gives a judge when he's asked if he has anything to say before he's sentenced." On stage High Priest of California lacks leaning-against-the-door allure. As a stage offering, it registers not so much lurid red as pallid rose.

In the circumstances, director Leo Farley does his utmost. The same can be said of the cast. Tall, strapping, John Garfield-like David Mogentale is one of the best actors in New York and has been for some time. Perhaps his name isn't more widely known because he's opted to devote his time (both in the scenes and behind them) to this enterprising, struggling company. (Two years ago, he understudied Phillip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly in True West, which meant he had to learn two parts and four sets of blocking, while the stars only had to learn two parts and two sets of blocking.) As Russell Haxby, he adds to the series of tough guys he's able to invest with their own brand of sensitivity. While Willeford may not strike the right ambiguous tone, Mogentale does, and that's whether he's smiling suggestively at Alyce or chastising her, whether he's menacing Blackie or kicking in the down-stage window (that exists thanks, again, to Tim Cramer sound effects)

Sirugo, round-faced and rigid-armed and very period in her tailored suits and pumps, pegs Alyce's wonderland expressions and reticence and -- toting the tomcats the character keeps in wooden cages -- also pegs her vaguely sinister aspect. As Russell undresses Alyce at last, Sirugo's on target right through her final astonished gaze. James E. Smith has his own array of wronged looks and boxer's crouches. Playing the quick-to-anger Blackie, he lacks nothing but the cauliflower ears. Paula Ewin, another 29th Street Rep vet, finds what's likeable and unlikeable about the plain-speaking Ruthie and lays the facets out squarely. Jerry Lewkowitz as the slightly thick-headed Stan and Tim Corcoran as a sympathetic policeman add to the period-and-place authenticity the company always seems effortlessly to achieve, even when the material chosen is more puzzling than the 29th Street Rep gang intends.