A Honey of an Anklet, or, Play Actually: Billy and Ray

11/05/2014 4:00 AM |

Billy and Ray
Vineyard Theatre
108 E. 15th Street

When Billy and Ray begins, we hear screenwriter-turned-director Billy Wilder (Vincent Kartheiser) screaming at his longtime writing partner Charles Brackett and breaking up with him for the moment; when the lights come up, Wilder’s loyal secretary, Helen (Sophie Von Haselberg), is cowering under her desk waiting for the fight to stop. Wilder needs to find himself a new partner to work on a screenplay for what will become his classic film noir, Double Indemnity (1944), and he finally settles on mystery writer Raymond Chandler (Larry Pine), a man deep into middle age who would prefer to write at home.

Wilder swears colorfully, likes to drink in the office, and carries on openly and boastfully with every starlet who will have him. Chandler is a secret alcoholic who carries a bottle of whiskey in his briefcase and surreptitiously drinks from it whenever he can, a World War I veteran who has been through hell and insists on certain standards in order to keep on living. He reveres his wife and is scornful of Wilder’s easy way of talking about sex. He dislikes the James M. Cain book they are adapting and has to be led into creating some of the film version’s double entendre dialogue. And he has a xenophobic streak when it comes to expatriate writers like Wilder and their criticism of America. It is made painfully clear in this play that Chandler has no idea what is really happening in Europe. When Wilder gets a letter explaining that his mother and other relatives have been moved to concentration camps, Chandler tells Helen that they will probably just be sewing uniforms.

The writing of a screenplay between two very different men is not necessarily the most dramatic idea for a play, but this is an unlikely production in many ways that winds up being lively, enjoyable, and even touching, particularly when we see just how deep into alcoholism Chandler is when Wilder goes to visit him in the hospital. It takes a little while to get used to Kartheiser’s Viennese accent, but once we get past that stumbling block he makes for a very good approximation of what Wilder must have been like in the early 1940s: impish, baby-faced, filled with nervous energy, unable to stop talking for a moment because if he did he might have to think about where his family is. Pine has a very sobering kind of authority that contrasts nicely with Kartheiser’s lustiness, and Von Haselberg smartly never makes too much of her role as their secretary, though she must have been tempted to (even if you didn’t know she was Bette Midler’s daughter, that progeny would become obvious with her every warm sidelong glance). Director Garry Marshall is known only for crass hit movie romantic comedies, but he keeps the play moving nicely, and playwright Mike Bencivenga skillfully manages to make every scene seem both accurate and affectionate in regard to Wilder, Chandler, and
1940s Hollywood.