The Yale Repertory Theatre’s latest whoddunit is plagued by a most unfortunate problem: it can barely answer who didn’t. “The Black Dahlia,” is long, complicated play based on a novel, by James Ellroy of “L.A. Confidential” fame. The play is based on the true story of the unsolved 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short. At the heart of traditional late forties glamour and film noir intrigue is the audience’s astonishment when the handsome hotshot detective is able to topple successive scenarios and arrive at some vague and dramatic final conclusion. But in “Dhalia,” this hotshot has too many scenarios to topple, so an audience that would have otherwise gasped at the finale is left snickering over how unwieldy it is and amazed that the production manages to pull it off — for the most part.
The play opens with Officer Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert’s (Mike Dooly) voiceover confessing that he “never knew the Dahlia,” but is also “the only one who knows the whole story.” Next, the spare scenery morphs into a boxing match between Bucky and Sergeant Leland “Lee” Blanchard (Marcus Dean Fuller). Nicely staged, it manages to switch rapidly and convincingly between fight scenes, locker room trash talking and yellow journalism uproar. Needless to say, the contentious relationship between “Fire” and “Ice,” as Lee and Bucky are called, evolves into a partnership in the coveted Warrants Department at the Los Angeles Police Department and extends into their off-duty hours.
The play really gets rolling after a series of rapid plot developements: Lee and Bucky kill four men in a drug bust, Lee reveals how troubled he is by the kidnapping of his younger sister when they were children, Lee’s live-in girlfriend, Kay (Amanda Cobb), reveals her love for Bucky, and the horribly mutilated body of nineteen year old Elizabeth Short is found. Cobb is unremarkable as Kay, teetering dangerously on the edge of unintentional parody of a 1940s straight talking little lady (which is why, at the end, you’re kind of glad you were never supposed to like her anyway).
The LAPD sends Fire and Ice to catch the “fiend,” which soon leads them to Short’s father, brilliantly performed by Mark Zeisler. He exudes a comfort onstage that he shares with the rest of the brilliant supporting actors, each of whom take on multiple roles, transitioning through them seamlessly. Together they make up a sort of Capra-esque menagerie of talent. Zeisler’s Mr. Short sadly states at the end of Lee and Bucky’s clumsy questioning, that while “prowling the streets like a black widow spider, its no wonder she got hurt.”
Zeisler’s excellence in these smaller parts is matched by the performances of other supporting actors Frank Deal, Graham Winton, and Mercedes Herrero. Deal and Winton are best together, as partners in the LAPD, Bill and Fritzie. Fritzie is outrageously cruel, violent, and racist; his lines like “I don’t like the syphilitic who you were born from. I do like inflicting pain on criminals,” are delivered with chilling ease. Bill is his dumb but mean sidekick, fiercely loyal and always ready to remind Bucky that “curiosity killed the kitty cat.” Their symbiosis makes their partnership much more interesting than that of the other set of detectives, Fire and Ice. You are left wishing that Bill and Fritzie, not Lee and Bucky, had been assigned to the case. Herrero plays an old society woman with true schizophrenic malaise, gliding about onstage in her turban like Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond. Though these actors are particularly striking in these roles, the depth they attain in their portrayals of every character they play — a total of fourteen among the three of them — is what really makes them stand out. Their suggestion that there is much more to the story adds more to the suspense than Dooly’s increasingly furrowed brow and increasingly frequent nudity.
And rightfully so, that Dooly’s brow is furrowed. His Bucky soon finds himself all alone. Anxious about the imminent release of Kay’s former boyfriend, who he arrested, from prison, Lee starts to take Benzedrine. Becoming more and more unreliable and jittery, he leaves Bucky to become the center of all the action. Bucky’s isolation makes his growing infatuation with Elizabeth Short much more understandable. Obsessed with the brutality and injustice of her murder, as well as her haunting beauty, he begins sleeping with her look-alike, Madeleine Sprague, who he meets at a lesbian bar and for whom he withholds evidence. Doubling as the look-alike and as Betty Short’s ghost lingering in the corners of the stage, the beautiful Christina Rouner infuses her performance with vulnerability and scheming ferocity. Her shining underclothes are as slippery as her smile, and the long, thin frame beneath them, especially when revealed, moves just languidly enough.
If you like nudity, this play certainly has it — though be prepared to listen to reactions of titillation and horror from your fellow audience members. If you like incest, this play has that, too. And mutilation, bribery, widespread police corruption, lesbian pornography, Tijuana, forced confessions, suicide, adultery, prostitution, statutory rape, dirty words by the dozen, an explosion, S&M, bestiality, allusions to Victor Hugo, and, of course, taxidermy. If this sounds overwhelming, it is. And it wouldn’t be if it were just slightly shorter, with one or two fewer scenarios for the audience to understand, and a little more time in which to understand them before they’re discarded. Understanding it at all is made possible only by the extraordinary acting and staging so precise and subtle you hardly know it changes. Only after you leave, do you realize just how much there is to think about.
For all of the sweeping statements “The Black Dahlia” seems to make about madness, sexuality (even our hero Bucky sexualizes the taste of blood), the ambiguity of guilt, and the reminder that nothing is ever what it seems, the play never really manages to say anything new about any of that. Shock value isn’t novelty, its just provocation. There must be something behind the initial upset, and even if that is not provided by the play itself, the superb acting doles it out generously.
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