In writer-director Padraic Duffy's new play, Puzzler, which opened last week at Sacred Fools Theater, Niklas Keller (Mark Bramhall), now in his 70s, sits at a desk somewhere in Germany, rifling through documents shredded by the East German secret police years ago. His needle-in-a-haystack search is for a fragment of a conversation, for a woman, his wife, for a fleeting marriage that dissolved before his eyes in a world where everybody was being watched and nothing was certain. His Quixotic search is for certainty, for an understanding of why said wife disappeared, after that conversation, in which she promised somebody, some man in a trench coat, that she would see him later that day. It was a clandestine rendezvous in which both man and woman were incognito (except to each other). After she met with that man, Keller never saw his wife again.
Keller pieces together that conversation from tiny slips of paper found in sacks of shredded documents that the contemporary government is analyzing in order to understand the now-defunct East German mentality.
That conversation shows up again on film, actually a live re-enactment performed by Jessica Sherman and Jacob Sidney. Her neck is wrapped in a purple scarf, and she carries the kind of white handbag that was de rigueur for East German spies. He's in a trench coat. It's all very noir.
Meanwhile, as Keller sifts through the fragments of paper and print, like an anthropologist, a Narrator (Ruth Silveira) sits perched above the roof of his office, spying on Keller and his obsessions. Whenever he, or his new, oddly sympathetic supervisor, Fischer (Ian Patrick Williams), speaks in German, the Narrator translates into English.
There's also the pressure of time, since the following day, Fischer explains, government workers are arriving to collect the shredded documents, presumably to dispose of them. Enough is enough, the contemporary government has said. So Keller must find whatever he's looking for tonight. He must somehow justify to his supervisor his desire to stay all night at the office.
A young American woman named Robin (Jeanne Syquia), who says she's a student, arrives on this night with access to that office. She seems to know something about Keller's disappeared wife, and he's sharp enough to recognize that her explanations for what she's doing in Germany — even the route she took from Los Angeles, and the way she got past Fischer — amount to dissembling.
And so Duffy's romantic thriller follows a kind of Agatha Christie logic, as revealed in a smoky Fritz Lang flick where nobody is quite who they claim to be. All that intel and disguise masks the truth.
While the audience is trying to fathom the puzzle of who is who, against the secretive backdrop of political intrigue, Keller is trying to fathom the more profound mystery of what lay in his wife's heart. Whether she chose to abandon him; whether she was forced to do so; whether she was killed; if so, when, and why?
Their youthful romance provided the driving purpose of his life, and he's spent the better part of it alone, trying to comprehend it, by spending a bit too much emotion dwelling in cemeteries and with ghosts.
The flashbacks provide the keenest sense of film noir that Duffy's play winks at. There's an almost choreographic panache to the swirl with which Sherman and Sidney move. Less so in the present tense, where Syquia's Robin, having crashed in from L.A., brings with her an acting style more cinema vérité than noir. Bramhall's Keller and Williams' Fischer wobble between the two worlds. The consequence is a kind of emotional investment in a sentimental love story, pinched at times by the sly visual jokes on film style that Duffy clearly adores.
Duffy's conclusion about the essence of love is strategically and wisely enigmatic. His play is a wistful riff on a genre that tended to accentuate style over substance. It's inevitable that an homage to such a genre would be bound by some of the same restrictions: insights based as truisms. Yet its affection for the form, and for its characters, is so much more satisfying than a parody.
The result is an emotionally and intellectually absorbing production of a smart and sometimes intoxicating play.
In Joshua Schmidt and Jason Loewith's Adding Machine: A Musical, an adaptation of Elmer Rice's 1923 satire of accountants slaving for The Man in cubicles, a schlub named Zero (Clifford Morts, in a marvelously cantankerous turn reminiscent of the late Carroll O'Connor — for those who remember the bigoted patriarch of 1970s sitcom All in the Family) eagerly awaits some reward on the 25th anniversary of his hiring. Instead, he's fired, having been replaced by an adding machine.
Rice's play was written before the days of pensions and labor unions and the kinds of postwar labor protections that, incidentally, accompanied the most robust economic boom this country has ever experienced. It also was written five years before the Great Depression.
It now arrives as almost all those protections have been swept away, and our economy teeters precariously once more — cursed by economic conditions and employment practices that in so many ways resemble those of 1923.
Yet neither the play nor this musical adaptation is primarily about economics, but rather about metaphysics, which would explain director Ron Sossi's fascination with it.
The operatic, often dissonant and percussive music has almost no melody, which is exactly right in a story that drives a spike through the heart of sentimentality and romance — which melodies invariably carry. Zero's wife is a hideous, jealous, nagging monstrosity — that would be the character, not Kelly Lester's spirited interpretation, which contains echoes of Angela Lansbury.
On the night of his firing, Zero blithely leaves a dinner party to go with the police. He makes no apology for murdering the boss (Alan Abelew) who fired him after 25 years of service with the typical weaselly rationalizations that have once more become so common in the American workplace.
Nor is Zero particularly upset at being locked up on death row, though the hellfire-and-brimstone ravings of an evangelical Christian give him pause.
He winds up instead in the Elysian Fields, where so many other criminals have gone after death. Looks like God's morality isn't quite what's in the Bible. The colleague who loved Zero unrequitedly (the marvelous Christine Horn) joins him there, having offed herself after his execution. For the way God really works, and the way dead souls are recycled, you have to see the show.
Sossi directs a strong production, though with minimal silk drops representing the afterlife, it didn't look much different from the drab life herein. That minimalism does subvert the moral joke.
On opening night, the actors' operatic strengths still needed strengthening, though the vigor with which Morts howled out his euphoria over his last supper of "Ham and Eggs" was a divine grunt that must have been heard in Heaven.
Patrick Kenny's musical direction strikes nice balances between the onstage band and the singers. The actors just need to settle in and push out the fun they're already having.
PUZZLER | By PADRAIC DUFFY | SACRED FOOLS THEATER, 660 N. Heliotrope Drive, L.A. | Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m. | Through Feb. 19 | (310) 281-8337
ADDING MACHINE: A MUSICAL | By JOSHUA SCHMIDT and JASON LOEWITH, adapted from the play by ELMER RICE | ODYSSEY THEATRE, 20555 S. Sepulveda Blvd., W.L.A. | Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m. (Sunday perfs Jan. 23 and Feb. 27 at 7 p.m.) | Through March 20 | (310) 477-2055