If you're a fan of film noir, you'll get a big kick out of "The Blue Dahlia," now at the Pacific Resident Theatre. Even if you're not, chances are you will still find this stage version of Raymond Chandler's 1946 film classic vastly entertaining.
The story revolves around Johnny Morrison, a war hero who must go on the lam after his cheating wife is murdered. Of course, while he's frantically trying to trace the real killer and clear his name, Morrison meets a classy dame with a mysterious past.
With the exception of a few embellished characters and a tweaked ending, adaptor Dan O'Connor, who also directs, lifts the film's dialogue almost verbatim. Call this stage noir, but with a difference. Whereas the film, which paired the popular acting team of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, was a rattling potboiler that took itself very seriously, O'Connor's staging is seasoned with a hearty pinch of parody.
That parodic quality is particularly evident in the second act. The first act is played in apparent seriousness — so much so that a puzzling tonal rift splits the production. That divide is forgivable, however, considering the other virtues of O'Connor's massively ambitious staging.
The technical elements are virtuosic, particularly Alexander Enberg's versatile set and Audrey Eisner's handsome period costumes. Cate Caplin's musical staging is also noteworthy, while Matt McKenzie and Amir Khalighi's sharp fight choreography would do a veteran stunt coordinator proud.
The large cast is also terrific. As Johnny, the Ladd role, Robb Derringer hard-boils his tough-guy character to just the right degree of rubbery resilience. A latter-day Lake, Katy Selverstone mingles high class and shimmering sex appeal. Matt McKenzie excels as a dapper, deadly gangster with a broken heart, while Steve Spiro's brain-damaged vet appears poised to explode at any instant.
Legend has it that Chandler penned this screenplay — his only work written directly for the screen — while dead drunk. A few huge holes in the plot would seem to bear out that story. Whatever its derivation, this rich, flawed, tangled yarn has been given a fresh new twist by O'Connor and company.
"The Blue Dahlia," Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 18. $20 to $27. (310) 822-8392. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.