By Gareth Watkins
CALGARY — Think of hard-boiled detective stories and you’re thinking of writer Raymond Chandler and character Phillip Marlowe. There were other influences on the genre, notably Dashiell Hammett and his creation Sam Spade, but Spade, as his alliterated name suggests, was a cartoon; Mike Hammer even more so, but Hammett could at least write. That Ayn Rand and Frank Miller are big fans of Spade should tell you all you need to know about him as an artist and human being.
Marlowe, as Graham Percy plays him, is a schlub. This is distinct from a schmuck or schmiel. A schlub is a schmuck that you can’t help but like. Percy is brilliantly cast here: he’s all jowls and the bags under his eyes, a smile that recalls Sam Rockwell at his most eager to please, pants up far too high. In film, Marlowe has been portrayed by Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum, but if you were to extend his basic schlubishness in this adaptation you’d arrive at Paul Giamatti. His idea of dressing for a date is a beat-up black jacket instead of a beat-up brown jacket. While in the 1978 film version he bemoans having only “a hat, a coat and a gun,” here he has to be given the hat as an act of charity. He drinks. Boy does he ever drink. If you tried to keep up you’d wind up in the emergency room or morgue. And women love him. Every single woman in the play falls madly in love with him, usually within minutes of meeting him. They’re drunks, too, but it’s the schlub’s magnetism that has him punching far outside of his weight class, romantically speaking.
After the requisite monologue on the evils of the city of Los Angeles, Marlowe is witness to ex-con tough-guy Moose Malloy violently attempting to reacquire his girlfriend Velma after seven years behind bars. He was framed, of course, and his capacity for violence and intimidating stature causes everyone but Velma, and later Marlowe, to assume that he’s a dumb brute. He played Caliban to corrupt psychic Amthor’s Prospero in an overly complicated jewel racket until he has to take a fall.
The overly complicated part is a result of the original novel being stitched together from three short stories, and there is a definite feeling that the constituent parts needed to be mixed more carefully. One character who appears in the second act turns out to be pivotal to the plot, and yet we only spend three scenes with her, and her inevitable romance with Marlowe, indeed her entire personality and motivations, unfolds in a single scene.
The cast and company aren’t at fault for a mistake that took place 74 years ago. Percy, as mentioned, is excellent, as is Beau Dixon as Moose. The female characters in these kinds of stories don’t tend to have well-developed personalities or long lifespans, but the players here imbue them with more life than the source material would normally allow. Emma Slipp as Annie Riordon, Marlowe’s unpaid assistant and the closest thing to a girlfriend he’s likely to get, gets the majority of the bawdier laughs, though Marlowe and his police foil Nulty have the funnier lines. She’s quick-witted and an energetic presence onstage, as much bottled lightning as Jamie Konchak’s Helen Grayle is smoke flowing languidly from a cigarette: a pleasure at first, then addictive, then deadly.
The set design is really worth pointing out. Scott Reid’s imposing geometric design recalls brutal, modernist architecture, the flat surfaces that stretch into the rafters becoming screens for the projections that allow a simple series of panels to become dilapidated apartments, gambling boats, palatial mansions. The only problem is how often the actors are called upon to move chairs and desks: it takes some getting used to seeing characters as distinctive as Moose, 6’5” tall and wearing a Hawaiian shirt, suddenly enter the frame to turn Marlowe’s office into Amthor’s parlour.
The pleasure in Farewell, My Lovely isn’t in unravelling the labyrinthine plot or necessarily in identifying with Marlowe. A true schmuck can only really exist in literature, and in real life we’d never be that bad, or good, with women, and nobody could still shoot straight after drinking a night out with Ernest Hemmingway’s worth of liquor before breakfast. None of us are Phillip Marlowe, even if the temptation is there. The closest we’ll come is being alcoholics who treat women badly. The pleasure, then, is the dialogue and its delivery. When the actors settle into its rhythm and the audience isn’t laughing at a double-entendre, the flow is something to behold. The interplay between Marlowe and Nulty or Marlowe and Riordon is something like watching two fighters at the top of their game spar, testing each other. Their verbal gymnastics are, like their drinking, a small respite in an otherwise hostile world. They may all be doomed, but at least they can get a few one-liners and strong drinks in before a bullet.
Farewell, My Lovely runs at Vertigo Theatre until October 19.AB, Alberta, Farewell My Lovely, theatre, Vertigo Theatre