No Orchids for Miss Blandish, at the Ivy Substation, opens with a shrouded body wheeled out before a caddy of gleaming instruments and the dull gaze of a technician. But before we can say ”mortician,“ the disinterested woman peels back the white sheet to reveal a very live female who‘s been under wraps during a beauty treatment that continues as her assistant applies polish to her manicured nails. This coy bit of deception will not be the last time Miss Blandish catches us leaning too far off base; the play, Robert David MacDonald’s stage adaptation of James Hadley Chase‘s 1939 crime novel, is a hall of mirrors, all twists and wrong turns that lead straight to hell.
Miss Blandish offers the kind of larval view of humanity that makes such masters of the hard-boiled canon as Horace McCoy and James M. Cain seem like grief counselors by comparison. The plot is starkly simple: Boy kidnaps girl; boy loses girl when he’s disemboweled by another boy; new boy meets kidnapped girl, falls in love. The title character, played by Ames Ingham, is a spoiled rich bitch readying herself for her 21st birthday bash in what passes for society in Depression-era Kansas City. She cruelly bosses around her father‘s swishy lieutenant, cadges forbidden liquor and haughtily regards a diamond-necklace heirloom as though it were a dirty sock. But the churl can’t help it — Daddy‘s an aloof patriarch too busy making money to say hello, and who instead has hooked his daughter up with a local swell whom she describes as having the personality of a cattle prod.
We never meet the young man, nor, certainly, do we ever see him get his head kicked in by the two petty thieves (Jason Hall and Ramon McLane) who take both Miss B.’s necklace and Miss B. herself. This last move proves to be a bad career choice, as the two smalltimers are soon muscled out of their booty, and more, by bigger hoods known as the Grisson Gang.
The Grissons, it turns out, are an extended family of sociopaths led by Ma (Pamela Gordon) and her knife-crazy son, Slim (Ken Roht). They say there‘s a bit of Hamlet in all of us, but Ma Grisson proves there’s also a bit of Gertrude in gangster moms, along with equal parts Lady Macbeth and Margaret Thatcher. Steely and unsentimental to her subordinates, she has one soft spot, for Slim, whose crotch she massages whenever he shows signs of independence. But soon even these maternal caresses aren‘t enough, as Slim falls hard for the heiress who’s imprisoned in his bedroom and regularly shot up with hop.
Several things go on while the gang lays low in its dive-bar headquarters: the hiring of a private detective named Fenner (Randy Kovitz) by Mr. Blandish‘s fey major domo, Mr. Lucie (Christian Jules Le Blanc); Ma Grisson’s dilemma of how to get the ransom and what to do with the hostage; the attempts of Miss Blandish‘s assistant, Anna Morgenstern (Alicia Hoge), to find gainful employment as a stripper while working on her entree into Hollywood. Here and there little rays of hope pierce through the existential gloom (Ma’s decision not to kill Miss Blandish right away, Anna‘s potential value to Fenner, and, of course, the star-crossed romance between Slim and Miss Blandish), but in the end these redeeming glimmers are not enough to save many of the story’s characters from their own monstrosity. Let‘s just say the center does not hold, and anyone who’s ever as much as jaywalked starts waving the long goodbye.
The play has two things going for it: a comically Malthusian view of life, and its giddy use of tough-guy slang bottled and corked in the age of radio and running boards. What this Evidence Room production has up its sleeve is an intelligent cast of actors and, in Bart DeLorenzo, a director who is keenly attuned to the menacing vibrations of MacDonald‘s script and the black-light vision of novelist Chase. The cast is thoroughly at home both essaying roles that are partly camp, partly murderous, and inhabiting Audrey Fisher’s spot-on costumes. Pamela Gordon‘s growl has never been tougher and more vulnerable than it is here; when her Ma Grisson enters the room where Miss Blandish is tied to a bed, an old corncob (MacDonald’s wink to William Faulkner‘s Sanctuary) in hand, we sense she isn’t here to share folkish tips on pipe making. It‘s a creepy moment in an evening filled with audience premonitions, almost all of them borne out, about dreadful events. Other standouts include Mickey Cottrell as Ma’s longtime partner in crime Doc, a man partial to bonded bourbon and observations like ”Suffering changes people but not necessarily for the better“; and Hoge and Christian Leffler (as Ma‘s henchman Eddie Schultz), a pair whose tough banter turns moments of the play into a screwball duet for lowlifes.
The show’s clever design elements recall the heyday of the Pacific Resident Theater Ensemble when it staged Slaughterhouse on Tanner‘s Close and The Beggar’s Opera in tight, vertical spaces that created both a theatrical claustrophobia and bottle-rocket energy. As the audience voyeuristically judges the action from steep scaffolding, Miss Blandish mostly unfolds in a deliriously ratty barroom designed by Richard Hoover, who has stacked a bedroom above the bar, all of which is luridly lit by Rand Ryan.
But it is DeLorenzo‘s appreciation of Miss Blandish’s Depression-era milieu, as well as the play‘s improbabilities — its malarial, Midwestern Catholicism, as well as the inexplicable East Coast accents of some characters — that capture the country’s perky cynicism, and bring to mind another theatre noir and PRTE triumph, The Blue Dahlia, which Daniel O‘Connor so lavishly staged at the small Court Theater in 1989. In the end, DeLorenzo’s Miss Blandish views like Brecht without the politics, a Darwinian tableau of little fish getting eaten by bigger ones.
MacDonald‘s play, first produced in Scotland in 1978 (with Pierce Brosnan playing Eddie Schultz), was based on a pulp novel welded to the conventions of its genre — sadistic brutalism, a sniggering contempt for homosexuals, and the belief that a woman’s place is in a jar with all the other black widows. What makes it so vivid is the chewing-gum pop of its slang, the kind of racy American repartee that only a foreigner like James Hadley Chase could write. A library clerk and sometime encyclopedia salesman, Chase (born Rene Brabazon Raymond), like many of his fellow Britons, immersed himself in the American pop culture of gangster films and romans noir.
He reputedly cranked out No Orchids for Miss Blandish in six weeks, and, just as Bram Stoker had researched distant Transylvania in the reading rooms of the British Museum, so Chase, who then had never visited the States, learned about them by holing up in the Hampstead library with an American slang dictionary. Like film directors Billy Wilder and Edgar G. Ulmer, and fellow countryman Richard Hallas (You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up), Chase eagerly learned ”American“ as a second language — the language of sex, violence and swing — eventually making it his own. (He also showed a flair for making passages from other writers, including Raymond Chandler, his own.)
In Chase‘s case, it was an artificial speech, the ironic idiom of movies, radio programs and novels that were prohibited from using deep profanity and so had to manufacture an ersatz slang not derived from traditional colloquial sources (black ghettos, music and drug subcultures, or Army-barracks life), but from the overheated imaginations of men who had never actually fired a heater, sapped a pansy or braced a frail.
Chase’s speech was not, ultimately, a speech of the people, but of a pop ethos presuming to represent prewar America. This led Chase‘s novel, and MacDonald’s play, to a harsher darkness than that encountered in Emlyn Williams‘ Night Must Fall, and down meaner streets than Philip Marlowe would ever go, but it also made Miss Blandish a sterile literary artifact. Still, Chase’s dialogue ricochets between his characters as wickedly as anything from The Front Page. ”What do I need to get you to kiss me?“ Eddie asks Anna. ”Chloroform,“ she replies. Or ”Careful, Lucie,“ Fenner taunts the major domo, ”you almost split an infinitive.“
No Orchids for Miss Blandish sold millions of copies, served as the pretext for a cautionary George Orwell essay, and has been adapted into two movies and several plays. Above all, for Chase it launched a wildly lucrative writing career whose picaresque titles included 12 Chinks and a Woman and You‘re Lonely When You’re Dead. Fourteen years after his death, however, Chase is virtually forgotten, his Alexandrian library of pulp ignored even by the hard-boiled revival, led by Black Lizard Books, of the 1980s. No Orchids for Miss Blandish may out-Chandler Chandler, but it‘s also out of print, another small fish that has vanished without a trace.