First Nighter: Amusing "Billy & Ray," Affecting "brownsville song (b-side for tray)"

The Billy & Ray of the vague title Mike Bencivenga gives his play at the Vineyard are Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler. By practically sheer accident the two men--and only after director Wilder had a rift with longtime partner Charles Brackett--collaborated in 1943-44 on the screen adaptation of James M. Cain's steamy novel of the same title.

While censor Joseph Breen was breathing down their necks, they focused on making the film version even steamier. It was an aim that film noir fans will cheer them for achieving with innumerable subtleties but not without much friction along the way.

The daily battle didn't go without notice at the time, although apparently no one recorded it in its entirely--or filmed it. But Wilder spoke about it and, in particular, to James Linville for a 1996 Paris Review interview. He also allowed Charlotte Chandler, no relation to Raymond, to write the 2002 biography Nobody's Perfect.

It's likely those are at least two of the sources for what is a highly amusing, highly polished comedy about the several months the temporary partners hashed out the seven-Oscars-nominated classic.

Less than comic, however, is the worry Jewish immigrant Wilder (Vincent Kartheiser) had about the family who'd stayed behind in Europe and are reported missing or the secret drinking Chandler (Larry Pine), supposedly on-the-wagon to elderly wife Cissy, slowly allowed to get out of hand during the pair's sessions.

As Wilder baits Chandler, who'd never been on a movie studio premises before (let alone attempted a screenplay of his works or the works of others), Chandler refuses to get over his disdain of the $750-weekly assignment and continually objects to Wilder's quirks. The director-writer's handy-dandy secretary Helen Hernandez (Sophie von Haselberg) tends amiably to the two men's demands and neophyte producer Joe Sistrom (Drew Gehling) hovers about wringing his hands over seeing no pages.

Billy & Ray--which has little in common with David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow about two Tinseltown execs working on a script and aided by a secretary and more in common with Neil Simon's Sunshine Boys--wouldn't be half the fun it is without the players, swinging into it under Garry Marshall's first piece of Manhattan stage direction. (The opus was initially produced at Burbank's Falcon Theatre by Marshall, Kathleen Marshal LaGambina and Sherry Greczmiel.)

No regular Manhattan theater regular will be surprised by Pine's impersonation of the Ivy League-ish Chandler, who looks and behaves nothing like his Philip Marlowe. After all, Pine--who recently played the brittle title character in An Unauthorized Biography of Walt Disney and then cross-dressed for Casa Valentina--makes everything he takes on seem as if he's simply doing it off-the-frayed--cuff. Pine is especially funny on author Cain's deficiencies, one dishy quote verified in the Paris Review chat.

The welcome surprise is Kartheiser, best (and perhaps only) known as the ambitious Pete Campbell on the soon-to-wrap Mad Men. What he offers here is a complete transformation. Speaking loudly in a Viennese accent (no dialect coach mentioned in the program) and carrying a big stick, he says ungrammatical things like "What did he did?" He also says about the groundbreaking he wants to do with Double Indemnity that "It's time the pictures grew up." Nosirree, Mad Men freaks, Kartheiser looks nothing like Pete Campbell, and bravo for that.

Gehling does completely right by the anxious Sistrom, a New York transplant afraid he's about to be sent right back where he started from. Von Haselberg is so good at what she's asked that she should soon cease to have it mentioned that her mom is Bette Midler. She does have a bit of the wonderful Divine Miss M strut.

Her blocky '40s shoes are a big help, as found by costumer Michael Krass. As a matter of fact, all the duds look authentically '40s--especially Helen's ensembles and the casual wear Wilder affects. Chandler's outfits resemble any professor's who might have been crossing a campus in the last several decades, and in his blue suit Sistrom gets to be the suit.

Billy and Ray--that's how Wilder insists they address each other to Chandler's chagrin--carry out the ultimately extremely successful bellicosities in a sleek Paramount office designed by Charlie Corcoran, who may not have read the Linville interview and its mention of the man's digs. Apparently, Wilder had hung a prominent sign featuring the question, "What Would Lubitsch Do?"--Ernst Lubitsch being a strong Wilder influence. Also, there are photograph of Wilder with fellow director-writers like Akira Kurosawa, John Huston and Federico Fellini. Corcoran has a Picasso and a Lautrec on the walls he puts up, along with portraits of various Paramount pretties.

At one moment, Wilder steps out on the walkway leading downstairs and spots Bing Crosby in white collar for the filming of Going My Way. Things were certainly going Crosby's way, since all the 1944 Oscars for which Double Indemnity was nominated, went to Der Bingle's release. Nice that Wilder and Chandler get a bit of a payback with Bencivenga's entirely satisfying entry.


Kimber Lee's brownsville song (b-side for tray)--the all-lower-case letters are Lee's stipulation--starts out at a tough level with gray-haired Lena (Lizan Mitchell) angrily declaring that the story about to unfold should not begin with her. While insisting, she does get across that the subject matter is a grandson, Tray (Sheldon Best), who was shot four times and killed as an innocent bystander in a local shoot-out.

Thereupon the dead boy's story gets underway, and it's an upsetting one, as Lee intends it to be. Clearly, she has in mind putting forth one ghetto youngster to stand for all of the promising young men and women done in by stray bullets and who then turn up in the kind of news coverage that never seems to stop.

Tray is a skilled boxer, who's also a candidate for a college education and a caring brother to younger sister Devine (Taliyah Whitaker). He's being tutored on his required college essay by Merrell (Sun Mee Chomet), who's his and Devine's estranged mother, a woman who lost her bearings after her husband died. By horrific coincidence, the dead husband and father was, like Tray, also killed by four bullets.

The admirably and unfailingly good Tray holds down a Starbucks barista job, where Merrell, needing work, lands a position. Tray helps her learn the ropes, and he tolerates his pal Junior (Chris Myers), who's constitutionally sullen and doesn't get Tray.

Kicking off the drama as robustly as Lee does, she can't resist allowing sentimentality to slip in before the final fadeout. It's her commitment to showing the great loss to society suffered when young people disappear in a violent society doing little to improve itself. Who can blame her, when, for instance, she reveals the essay Tray writes that qualifies him for no less than a hefty grant he'll never claim?

As directed with understanding by Patricia McGregor, the actors are impeccable. Andromache Chalfant's set gets the point across. It's dominated by a corrugated garage door with Tray's face painted on it over the insistent word "Memory." The same goes for Asa Wember's evocative sound design.

The enterprise has the feel of a rap song made stage-ready. Perhaps that's the explanation for the "b-side" in the title, although if records with what used to be widely known as b-sides (as opposed to the more commercially-intended a-side) still exist, I'm caught off guard.

Oh, I see, Lee may be implying that boys like Tray are unfairly regarded as no more than b-sides. If so, how damning is that?