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Case Closed: A ‘Laura’ Onstage Is a ‘Laura’ Unrealized

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Vera Caspary’s murder mystery, “Laura,” has retained a curious staying power since it first appeared as a novel in the early 1940s.

Otto Preminger’s film version, with Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews and a caustically snaky Clifton Webb, is the “Laura” everyone knows and keeps coming back to. It remains the definitive early film noir; it played last summer at downtown Los Angeles’ Orpheum Theatre to a packed house; artist Cindy Sherman has cited it as one of her key influences.

But what about “Laura,” the play? Riding the wave of the novel’s success, Caspary made a stab at a stage version of her tale in 1943, a year before the movie. Now, it’s perhaps as obscure as the film is iconic, and a look at a rare revival at the Camino Real Playhouse explains why.

Constrained to the time and space of the stage, Caspary wastes no time establishing that A) Laura Hunt, alluring siren to New York’s rich and famous, has been murdered, and B) Det. Mark McPherson (Ian Downs) is in love with her wall portrait.

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Almost as quickly, McPherson is faced with a gaggle of suspects: Laura’s fidgety Southern fiance, Shelby (Brian Ramian); Laura’s Svengali-like patron of connoisseurship, Waldo Lydecker (Brian J. Page); an overzealous Danny (Patrick O’Connell), the apartment manager’s son in puppy love with Laura--which only proves that every red-blooded male can’t help but swoon for Laura.

“Laura,” of course, isn’t about what happened to Laura, but who the murderer is. In this main respect, the play--though strikingly different overall--closely resembles the screen version, which is a far superior adaptation by Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein and Betty Reinhardt.

While Tierney’s Laura doesn’t appear until nearly two-thirds of the way through the film, Vitina Napoli, as the mystery woman, appears early on. Soon, we can feel Caspary chafing under the inability--unlike the novel and film--to flash back in time and establish the curiously dependent, nonerotic passion between Waldo and Laura, and the older man’s building frustration as he faces a parade of young men wooing his princess.

Caspary makes several critical flubs here, which demonstrates how much more skilled Agatha Christie was with similar material. While the film and novel, for instance, allow us to see Waldo’s decadence (as a Winchell-like columnist, he writes in his bathtub), in the play he must tell Mark of his decadent, low views of the rest of humanity.

Page delivers by far the show’s most accomplished performance, because he plays a portly Waldo down to the bottom of his feet, oozing an aristocratic disgust of people. Page, in sum, fills in what Caspary leaves out.

The play’s other, numerous miscues include a strange insistence on comic relief with the badly written characters of Danny and maid Bessie (Leslie Williams), which results in a lot of shrill acting in this revival directed by Tom Scott. There’s a lack of attention to such details as Ramian’s wavering Southern accent and Page’s awkward breaking of a Chinese vase--indeed, all of the stage action is comically awkward--that simply smacks of under-rehearsal.

Some time and thought, though, went into Joe LaMasa’s Deco-ish black-and-white set, which looks like a New Yorker illustration come to life, and Kimberly Krone’s sleek costumes--the only elements here that really keep us in the period.

By far the most serious problem rests with Napoli, who is much less alluring than she was in this company’s previous production of “Talking With . . .” and Downs, who, despite a solid feel for a ‘40s gumshoe attitude, sounded as if he had cotton balls in his mouth.

Because the Laura-Mark relationship is considerably more emphasized in this version of “Laura” than any other, there must be sparking chemistry with the wavering hint of danger.

There are no sparks here, much less danger. And what’s “Laura” without these?

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

* “Laura,” Camino Real Playhouse, 31776 El Camino Real, San Juan Capistrano. 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. $10. Ends Nov. 23. (714) 489-8082. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

Ian Downs: Mark McPherson

Brian J. Page: Waldo Lydecker

Vitina Napoli: A Girl

Brian Ramian: Shelby Carpenter

Patrick O’Connell: Danny Dorgan

Leslie Williams: Bessie Clary

Joe LaMasa: DiMarco

A Camino Real Playhouse production of Vera Caspary’s murder mystery. Directed by Tom Scott. Set: Joe LaMasa. Costumes: Kimberly Krone. Lights: Phil Blandon.


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