Hollywood has been providing inspiration for playwrights for—well, nearly as long as Hollywood has been churning out motion pictures. To name just a few: Kaufman and Hart’s Once in a Lifetime (1930), Clifford Odets’ The Big Knife (1949), David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow (1988), Douglas Carter Beane’s The Little Dog Laughed (2006), and, most recently, this season’s The Money Shot by Neil LaBute.
In Billy & Ray, running through Nov. 23 at Off Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre, playwright Mike Bencivenga limits himself to one movie—the 1944 film noir masterwork Double Indemnity—and the contentious screenplay collaboration between filmmaker Billy Wilder (Mad Men’s Vincent Kartheiser) and detective novelist Raymond Chandler (Broadway vet Larry Pine).
The writers’ odd-couple pairing is surely what Bencivenga was hoping to mine for laughs: Wilder is a womanizer, Chandler doesn’t play around on his wife; Wilder is boisterous and swears up a storm, Chandler is subdued, old-fashioned, and generally shuns profanity; Wilder drinks martinis in the morning and Manhattans at night, Chandler…doesn’t. Add in the rat-a-tat banter of Wilder’s Pepto-Bismol-swilling producer (Drew Gehling) and sassy secretary (the appealing Sophie von Haselberg, a dead ringer for her mother, Bette Midler), and you might have the makings of a Wilder-style screwball comedy. Oh, yes—and the director of this silver-screen salute is Garry Marshall, who knows a thing or two about Hollywood, not to mention The Odd Couple.
Yet Kartheiser and Pine are a bit too odd. Kartheiser—who tackles the Austrian-born Wilder’s accent with gusto, if not accuracy—is having a fantastic time with groaners like ”In case you haven’t noticed, I don’t sprechenzee English so hot” and ”Subtleties are fine. As long as we make them obvious.” Pine, meanwhile, couldn’t look more uncomfortable. It’s almost as if Kartheiser is too fast for him; he’s always just behind the beat. As Billy says to Ray, extolling their wildly different personalities, ”No spark, no sparkle.” Alas, Billy & Ray is woefully short on sparkle. C+