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Theatre in Review: The City That Cried Wolf (59E59)

Adam La Faci and Rebecca Spiro. Photo: Hunter Canning

"It was not a happily-ever-after kind of city." So says private detective Jack B. Nimble about Rhyme Town, the dark and sinister place where he practices his dubious profession. A disgraced former cop -- he was deprived of his badge by none other than chief of police Mother Goose -- Jack is summoned by city councilman Humpty Dumpty, who needs someone to keep tabs on his wife, Bo Peep, a sultry nightclub thrush who warbles about her lost flock of sheep and may be straying with another man. Jack takes the case, but, soon enough, Humpty is one scrambled egg. "Fell out that window. Landed sunny-side up on the pavement downstairs," reports Mother Goose from the crime scene, an apartment house known as Rapunzel Towers.

Jack is drafted to track down Humpty's killer, and he soon finds himself entangled with the surprisingly dry-eyed Bo Peep and up to his neck in a mystery involving closeted homosexuality, prostitution, addiction (to "magic beans"), a construction scandal, and a law, the Anti-Predator Act, which is aimed squarely at wolves, the town's most discriminated-against minority. Did I mention that Bo Peep performs at a club called the Hey Diddle Diddle? Or that Jack frequently sups at a greasy spoon known as Horner's Corner? Or that a notorious madame is named Turkey Lurkey?

As should be clear by now, playwright Brooks Reeves, acting like a theatrical Gregor Mendel, has crossbred a Raymond Chandler-style mystery with the entire fairy-tale canon. Among other things, Hansel and Gretel are a pair of Germanic coroners. Willie, one of the Three Blind Mice, is a world-class rat who trades in drugs and information. And lest you're thinking of bringing the children, consider this: When Jack is surprised to discover that one of the characters involved in the case is gay, someone says, "Let's just say Little Boy Blue wasn't just blowing his horn."

There are, I suspect, two kinds of people in the world: those who find the concept of The City That Cried Wolf to be endlessly amusing and those who are irritated by the coyness of it all. I fall into the latter category. What might be a funny idea for a short S. J. Perelman piece in the New Yorker, or maybe a Bob and Ray radio sketch, quickly becomes laborious when stretched out over 90 minutes. Beyond the reframing of beloved children's stories and poems with a sordid adult sensibility -- an idea that gets old very fast -- the script has no particular point to make. This one-joke premise soon wears thin, and watching the playwright dredge up additional storybook references doesn't add to the fun.

I guess somebody must like The City That Cried Wolf, since this is its second time around at 59E59, following an engagement in 2007, but I will add that the audience at the performance I attended was notably restrained. In any case, the director, Leta Tremblay, has assembled a cast that knows how to deliver the dialogue in the right hard-boiled fashion. Adam La Faci is solid in the one-note role of Jack, and Rebecca Spiro effectively channels an array of film-noir shady ladies as Bo Peep. If you're sticking to genre conventions, it's a little bit strange to have a lady police captain, but Michelle Concha gets the job done as Mother Goose. Among the furiously hard-working ensemble, I liked Dalton Davis in various roles, especially as the sneaky, double-dealing Willie.

The production, in 59E59's tiny Stage C, tries for more style than it can manage, given the space and budget. Greg Stevens' set design frames the action in a false proscenium decorated with the names of various locations seen in the play; behind it is an upstage wall with a pair of doors through which pass any number of corrupt individuals. Aside from some killer ensembles for Bo Peep, Angela Borst's costumes feature little touches that indicate which animal species each character belongs to. Both scenery and costumes strain to evoke a fairy-tale/film-noir universe; I wonder if the script might not be better served by being presented as a radio play, letting the imaginations of the audience members supply the visuals. Jake Fine's lighting is okay, as are Jeanne Travis' original music and sound design. Kevan Loney's opening video sequence faithfully evokes the detective dramas of Hollywood's past.

Funnily enough, the mystery at the heart of The City That Cried Wolf is pretty good -- good enough, in fact, to make me wonder if Reeves might not try his hand at a straight-up thriller. Then Jack, Bo, and the rest of the crowd could enjoy the nice, long rest they deserve. -- David Barbour

(28 November 2016)

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