What the Coroner Saw

It’s a story so classic that many of us may not remember its origin, although we‘re pretty sure the source is an old movie: A detective investigating a homicide studies a portrait of the victim and falls in love with her. Then, having fallen asleep in the woman’s home, the cop is awakened by the arrival of none other than this ”murdered“ woman. The film and titular lady in question is Laura, a 1944 adaptation of Vera Caspary‘s novel, whose themes of uneasy resurrection and universal guilt director Otto Preminger easily fit into the groove of a film noir tone poem. Caspary and George Sklar later translated the work for the boards, and it is their version rather than Preminger’s dark fable that is playing at the Tiffany Theater.

Laura onstage is understandably a different creature from Laura onscreen, occupying a place under the homicide proscenium somewhere between comic thrillers like The Mousetrap and deep-end dramas like Night Must Fall. Presented here without intermission, the story begins with the investigation of Laura Hunt‘s murder and introduces us to a list of possible suspects: Laura’s tentative boyfriend, Shelby Carpenter (Tom Astor); her controlling mentor, newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker (Stanley Kamel); the young, smitten Danny Dorgan (Matthew Godfrey); and Danny‘s bitter mother (Karen Tarleton).

The plot only thickens after Detective McPherson (Robin Thomas) is confronted by the flesh-and-blood apparition of Laura (Linda Hamilton), who is very much alive and who has returned to her New York home from a Connecticut weekend. It seems that the body found in Laura’s apartment -- and robe -- belonged to a 19-year-old houseguest whose face was unceremoniously blown away by a shotgun blast. Soon, all the characters we met earlier drop by for the shocking news; they‘re still on the hook -- and, now, so is Laura, as we try to figure out who killed her unfortunate visitor.

As the house lights went down before the first scene, I hoped that at least part of the film’s famous theme music would somehow be worked into the show. Brother, was my wish ever granted -- for the next 100 minutes, David Raksin‘s signature melody would not go away and seemed to play during every lengthy pause in the dialogue. It’s that kind of show, one that panders to a lingering nostalgia for both the film and an era of fedoras, starched shirts and cigarette holders. (What do I have to look forward to in old age -- stage versions of Repo Man?)

The production certainly has its strengths: John Iacovelli‘s elegant, color-exsanguinated apartment set, whose furnishings have been created by Pat Emery, and Dick Magnanti’s costume design, which in particular provides Laura with some sumptuous outfits, and Lydecker and Carpenter with handsome suits. Yet the seldom-performed Laura is an odd fit for the Tiffany, a venue more familiar as a showcase for contemporary plays and solo performances than for period revivals. The reason for this becomes clear with the architectural challenge of trying to fit a swank Manhattan apartment onto the Tiffany‘s stage, which, while generous enough, hasn’t been configured by Iacovelli to solve some key problems. (The dining-room table is placed almost directly -- and very unswankily -- before the front door.)

Thornier still is director Lynette McNeill‘s respectful staging, whose very flatness undermines her solemn intentions by making us wonder if we’re to take certain moments seriously. Fairly early on, with the ritual gathering of suspects before the detective and with the disclosure of the play‘s ”wounded man“ syndrome (McPherson has a limp, Lydecker relies upon a cane and also has an astigmatism), we sense the production has unintentionally drifted into Charles Busch territory. But McNeill resists making the material even remotely campy; neither does she show any interest in the script’s opportunities for social debate, a la Stephen Daldry‘s staging of J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls. (Caspary, after all, was an ardent feminist, and Laura is one of her emancipated-woman characters who work for a living but who are the subject of men who want to control them.)

Then there are the long blackouts required to allow time for Hamilton to change her gowns.

Nothing underlines the star-vehicle nature of this production more boldly than these lulls (obligingly filled by the Laura theme) that bring the production to a conspicuous halt. For better or worse, Hamilton will always be known as Sarah Connor, the reluctant heroine pursued by cyborg assassins in the Terminator films. It‘s always unfair when serious actors get pigeonholed by such roles, although I must admit to being nagged by the temptation to aim a laser pointer at Ms. Hamilton’s forehead during Laura. I doubt that even this would‘ve prodded her into enlivening her performance, which at best is a nervous parody of a woman running behind schedule to catch a train. She’s constantly lighting cigarettes in a holder only to put them out almost immediately, which hardly captures the haunting enigma of the femme fatale whose mere portrait bewitches Detective McPherson.

That painting, a monochromatic exercise in photorealism, is similarly unmesmerizing, and suffers from being placed too close to the audience; a little mystery might have been added had it been hung upstage and somewhat obscured. And McNeill‘s production needs lots of mystery to deflect our attention from the play’s creaks. (There are the usual dated crime-genre gaffes: No homicide detective in the world would question witnesses in groups, and, faceless or not, a coroner would‘ve immediately known that the teenager on his slab was not the middle-aged Laura.)

Preminger engraved upon his film both the moody visual tropes of film noir and the reductive Freudianism of Park Avenue psychoanalysis. As Detective McPherson, Dana Andrews presented a neurotic, emotionally distant seeker of guilt who seemed to care more for the BB-in-the-holes game he carried in his pocket than for erotic gratification. ”A doll in Washington Heights got a fox fur out of me once“ was the only reference he made to a sexual history.

Most of our perceptions of police detectives are formed by hard-boiled archetypes like Andrews, or by the real-life versions on TV. Here, unfortunately, Robin Thomas’ McPherson has neither a palm game with which to fiddle nor a bloody glove to plant. Instead, he paces around Laura‘s apartment like an exasperated lover -- which perhaps he should, given his infatuation with her -- but looking at his face and listening to his voice, we never understand why he is a cop, much less a man possessed.

Likewise, for the most part McNeill’s lead actors seem bent on duplicating the set‘s colorlessness by giving flat line deliveries. Kamel’s Lydecker, who is, after all, McPherson‘s nemesis in nearly every way, never rises to the level of flamboyance the role calls for. He certainly sounds dismissive, but his sarcasm seems ventriloquized rather than voiced. The show’s opaque acting style partly explains why some dead-serious scenes draw giggles from the audience. This was especially true toward the end, when McPherson burst through the front door, revolver and fedora at the ready, only to have some viewers inadvertently laugh -- a sure tip-off that McNeill needs to take the starch out of this production.


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