‘Laura’ is a skilled take on a vanishing genre

 

Jasmine Rush and  Alexander Cook in the Stoneham Theatre's "Laura." Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots.

Jasmine Rush and Alexander Cook in the Stoneham Theatre’s “Laura.” Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots.

STONEHAM – In most cases, the classic film noir of the 1930s and 1940s has made a seamless transition from film to the stage.

Adaptations of “Dial M For Murder,” “Strangers on a Train” and “Double Indemnity” are three that come to mind immediately.

“Laura” is another, a stage adaptation of the classic 1944 film that starred Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney and was directed by Otto Preminger. It is substantially different from the film in both plot and the number of characters.

The Stoneham Theatre production of “Laura” now on stage through May 22 is a skilled rendition of a genre that is, regrettably, becoming somewhat of a lost art. Even if you’ve seen the movie and know the ending, watching a fine cast get there will entertain you all over again.

The hard-boiled homicide detective is, of course, a staple of the film noir He is a complicated creature, usually toting some heavy baggage of his own, and as we await the beginning of the play, Mark McPherson (Alexander Cook) is already nervously biding his time in a New York City apartment, a crime scene that has recently been “unsealed” after an investigation of a murder of a woman named Laura that occurred there several days before.

McPherson is waiting to see who shows up and why, and his patience is soon rewarded by a string of visitors, including a young man named Danny Dorgan, seeking jazz records he believes he was promised by Laura before she died.

Dorgan (Elliot Purcell), who lives in a downstairs apartment with his mother, is a frequent visitor to the apartment, ostensibly to share notes on music with Laura but possibly interested in much more than that. He explains to McPherson that a family member who is the superintendent helped him get in.

The visitors also include Waldo Lydecker (Steven Barkhimer), who has found money is the key to getting into the apartment, where he hopes to retrieve a gift he once gave to Laura, a longtime friend.

Waldo is an erudite but self-obsessed writer, much older than Laura, whom he has squired to many events around town, although he doesn’t appear to have a physical relationship.

The writer, as he constantly reminds us and tells McPherson, is “Laura’s oldest friend” as he puts down his various rivals for her affections. Barkhimer chews up the scenery in the role, but is never a soulless, over-the-top caricature.

It’s not giving away too much to reveal that Laura, it turns out, is indeed alive and well, and was away in the country when a young model who was using her apartment was murdered. Because of facial disfigurement from a shotgun blast, she was incorrectly identified.

Was Laura the intended target? If so, who murdered the model and did he or she know they hadn’t hit their intended target?

McPherson, once he gets over the shock of Laura’s appearance, gets her to lie low while he figures it out.

Jasmine Rush as Laura is the very definition of a femme fatale – a strong, assertive, glamorous woman who collects men as she might, say, ancient Chinese vases, a woman with an air of mystery and danger.

And then there’s Laura’s “Boy toy” fiancee, Shelby Carpenter (Alexander Molina), a bit of a Southern-fried empty suit who as it turns out was acquainted – make that well-acquainted – with the murdered model found in Laura’s apartment. He is a bit stiff and wooden, and Waldo dances verbal rings around him – as he should.

All of men in orbit around Laura are attracted to Laura in their own way, and she either welcomes or rejects their advances as if she is swatting away a fly.

In the rhythms of his speech, Cook’s McPherson maintains a dedicated monotone, appropriate to the piece, and there are faint echoes of Humphrey Bogart, and that’s a good thing. It becomes increasingly evident he is eerily obsessed with Laura – first as an apparent murder victim and later, as a murder suspect. It affects his judgment and his grip on reality.

There’s also a couple of fine supporting appearances by Molly Kimerlimng as Bessy, Laura’s devoted but excitable maid/housekeepeer who comes upon the body of a woman she assumes to be her slain employer, and Liana Asim as Mrs. Dorgan, Danny’s doting mother who is very wary about the goings-on in the apartment and Danny’s involvement in them.

Promising director Sarah Gadzowicz makes sure the entire cast continually ups the ante of the dramatic tension, and the piece flows smartly.

A stage adaptation of a film noir classic is delicate business. If not done well, it can be campy, and where you want to hear gasps of surprise, there’s the dreaded sound of laughter.

But this smartly-executed “Laura” holds you in suspense throughout, until the satisfying denouement.

The Stoneham Theatre production of “Laura.” Written by George Sklar and Very Caspary. Directed by Sarah Gazdowicz. Scenic design by James Talman. Lighting design by Deb Sullivan. Costume design by Erica Desautels. Sound design by Chris Larson. At the Stoneham Theatre through May 22. http://www.stonehamtheatre.org.

Steven Barkhime and Jasmine Rush in "Laura." Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots.

Steven Barkhimer and Jasmine Rush in “Laura.” Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots.

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