Print may be failing, but pulp will never die. Even as it metamorphoses to other forms – the pulp-fictioning of America, if you will – that down-and-dirty, slightly sleazy, slightly queasy, moralizing-through-a-haze-of-sex-and-violence universe of the dime novel and its slightly upscale movie cousins is never gonna leave us: it’s all too tawdry and delicious. Play it, Sam. We like this tune.
Even in a popular culture that’s suffused with color, Chicago playwright Keith Huff understands the allure of gritty black-and-white. He’s been a co-producer and writer for the television series “Mad Men,” a sort of strivers’ lush underview of the 1950s. And his twin plays “A Steady Rain” and “The Detective’s Wife” – each runs about an hour and a half – brace themselves securely in the conventions of the hard-boiled detective novel, risking predictability in a quest for something deeper and more surprising.
Portland’s Hellfire Productions is in the midst of a repertory run of “Rain” and “Wife” at the little east-side space Shoe Box Theater (they continue through October 7) and despite sharp direction and bang-bang performances the shows have got a little lost in the fog of the new theater season. That’s too bad, because there’s a lot here to like.
The productions are an intriguing family affair. Wife-and-husband JoAnn Johnson (“The Detective’s Wife”) and Pat Patton (“A Steady Rain”) direct. Wife-and-husband Marilyn Stacey and David Sikking star – Stacey in a solo turn on “The Detective’s Wife” and Sikking in a particularly fortuitous pairing with Don Alder in “A Steady Rain.” The plays are linked in mood and subject – they’re both about the world of cops – but not in characters or narrative. You can see one without the other, and if you see both it doesn’t really matter in which order.
The testosterone pours in “A Steady Rain,” a play about decency and corruption among the moral minefields of two cops’ jobs and lives. Joey (Sikking) and Denny (Alder) are childhood buddies who grow up to be partners together on the street, both bucking to make detective, both with their fierce loyalties and their equally fierce demons. The melodrama piles on in a cacophony of drink and dames and pimps and serial killers, and as one partner gets crushed beneath the weight, the other slowly rises. You could easily go overboard in a choppy sea like this, and the great pleasure of this production is that Sikking and Alder, under Patton’s neatly executed direction, never do. Not that their performances aren’t heightened. They’re bouncing off the walls. But each bounce, each snarl, each collapse is calculated, and I walked away feeling I’d just watched two masters at work. Alder is fiercely convincing and more than a little scary as a guy locked more and more disturbingly inside his own head. Sikking, in the more laconic but equally emphatic role, ducks and feints and confronts only when necessary, but to devastating effect. It’s like watching a slugger and a tactician going at it in the ring, bonded by the code of the club.
“A Steady Rain” provides the fireworks. “The Detective’s Wife” counters with a steady flame. The writing’s cooler in “Wife” but also more genuinely suspenseful and intriguingly layered, and Johnson as director and Stacey as performer get what’s going on. As the widow of a detective who’s died mysteriously in the course of investigating a long-ago unsolved crime, Stacey’s character, Alice, becomes obsessed with following through and solving the crime herself. Even though the story’s littered with the corpses of people who’ve tried to do the same. Even though any and everyone in power tries to shut her down. Even though her own sanity comes deeply and disturbingly into question.
Performing alone but suggesting several other characters, Stacey walks a deft line among deference and determination, sanity and compulsion, competence and falling-apart. Like Denny’s unseen wife in “A Steady Rain” she comes from a cop culture in which wives are to be fiercely protected and kept in the dark; when she takes on her murdered husband’s mission she’s breaking the code. Playwright Huff riffs slyly on “Hamlet” in “The Detective’s Wife,” and Stacey takes on an oddball but intriguing combination of qualities from Gertrude (a highly suspicious character heats up her marital bed) and Hamlet himself. Ghosts even play a role, though you can’t ever quite pin them down: How do those incriminating computer files just start to print themselves out, anyway? A slight spoiler: unlike “Hamlet,” not everyone ends up dead.
Although it’s a close call. It’s just surprising somebody doesn’t beat somebody to a bloody pulp. But then, there are worse ways you can go – body and soul.