Fiction Is My Business 

Larry Gelbart's City of Angels spoofs all that is noir at Masquers Playhouse

I knew the dame was trouble the minute she walked into my office. The long legs, the dark glasses, the theater program clutched in her satin-gloved hand. "You're the only one who can help," she breathed as she leaned over my desk, nearly knocking over the bottle of hot chocolate I keep for emergencies. "I've lost my clichés. I'll do anything," she said -- taking an impressive breath that made her diamonds shake like a punch-drunk boxer -- "to get them back."

What could I do? Business was slow, and she was fast. I took the case. My secretary looked up from filing his nails as I left the office. "Watch out, boss," he said as I gave him the dame's check to cash. "Those actor types can play rough." "Don't worry, kid," I told him, shrugging on my overcoat. "I can take care of myself. I've got spell-check."

The program led me to Masquers Playhouse, an amateur joint in Point Richmond that was putting on the musical City of Angels. Written by Larry Gelbart, with music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by David Zippel, City turned out to contain every film noir/private detective cliché in the book -- and a few that were edited out. Set in Los Angeles in the late '40s, City's hilarious script follows beleaguered author Stine (David Irving) as he tries to adapt a novel for the screen. Stine is catching flak from all quarters -- producer/director Buddy Fidler (Michael O'Brien), wife Gabby (Shay Oglesby-Smith), and worst of all, his own creation, hard-boiled detective Stone (Bruce Lundy). The story moves back and forth between Stine fighting to keep his story intact ("He's teaching me to write with guns instead of words," he says of Fidler) and Stone trying to avoid a one-way trip to the morgue while searching for a runaway heiress. The line blurs between the two stories until Stone and Stine are interacting directly ("You're Nothing Without Me," they sing to each other at the end of the first act) and the game of sexual musical chairs has reached epic proportions.

For a goofy comedy, City manages to slip the audience a mickey or two when it comes to social commentary. As in last year's Inspecting Carol, there's some exposure of racial tension when Stone's ex-partner, Lt. Muñoz (Patrick Sanchez), turns on Stone, who has been spared punishment for a murder. "Everything's smooth for you milky bastards," he sneers, observing that if Stone had been black or Latino, he would have gotten the chair. Playwright Gelbart takes it a step further when he has Fidler make Stine take that line out of the story-within-a-story. "Cut the 'your people, my people' social crap," says the director, over Stine's objection that the "social crap" was what elevated his original novel above the usual private-dick story. There's also a lot going on about women's roles, most notably illuminated in the excellent duet "What You Don't Know About Women" sung by Stone's secretary Oolie (Jane Barnes) and Gabby.

Visually, the first act is more interesting than the second (which mostly seems to consist of pushing a bed back and forth across the stage). The first act features a balletic beating-up scene (calling it a fight would suggest that Stone manages to fight back) performed in silhouette, and an overall design in shades of black, white, and gun-moll lipstick. The live musical accompaniment under music director Pat King is excellent.

The actors are game, even if the singing is at times awkward and even painful. Michael O'Brien in particular seems to relish delivering his malapropism-laden lines; his delivery is clear and hilarious. The actors playing Stine and Stone both inhabit their roles well, and bring out an intriguing dynamic. Stone, for all of his cynical toughness, seems to have a lot more integrity than Stine, who cheats on his wife, backs down from protecting his story, and is generally a weasel. Stine can learn a lot from his creation, and this play is about that education at its heart.

Which is what I told the dame when she came back to my office to see what progress I'd made on the case. "You don't need my help, sweetheart," I told her, chewing a candy cigarette. "You were just taking me for a ride." She smiled, took back her program, and sailed out of my life forever. Dames!

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