A terrific performance by Ned Averill-Snell makes Gloucester Blue by Israel Horovitz one of the best 1940s noir thrillers I’ve seen in the 21st century. But wait a minute: What’s a 1940s noir thriller doing in the 21st century? Wasn’t this genre more or less milked for all it was worth 70 years ago? Oh well, at least I can report that the Jobsite Theater production of Gloucester is genuinely suspenseful, unpredictable and entertaining.
Averill-Snell is joined onstage by three other fine actors, and David M. Jenkins’s taut direction could hardly be better. But know in advance what you’ll get: crime, sex, a femme fatale on the one hand; not a murmur of deeper significance on the other. Like its ancestors Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, Gloucester is all about surfaces and cynicism and what-happens-next. None of its themes — which in this case mostly means class resentment — are ever truly explored, and its finale hardly finalizes anything. At its best, it’ll keep your butt on the edge of its seat. What it’ll do for your heart and mind isn’t nearly so clear.
The story is about two house painters, Stumpy (Landon Green) and Latham (Averill-Snell), who are converting a commercial building into a home for some wealthy clients. We soon find out that Latham is a last-minute replacement for another painter, that he’s got a bad attitude, especially toward the rich, and that his bitterness threatens to spill over into real aggression. Enter Lexi (Georgia Mallory Guy, in one of her best performances ever), half the couple who are planning to move into the new house. She’s gregarious at first, and oblivious to the anger that Latham feels toward the upper class. When it turns out that her father, a judge, once sentenced Latham for some unspecified crime, she’s genuinely conciliatory. But as Latham gets in her face one time too often, she finally turns against him, leaving Stumpy in the middle. I can’t tell you much more without spoiling some of the surprises, but I will say that one mystery we’re alerted to early on is the existence of a full working bedroom in the otherwise unfinished residence. By the time we meet Lexi’s husband Bummy (Drew Smith, making wealth look feckless), a series of shocks has begun that won’t end till Act Two does. More appropriately, the title might have offered the color red.
Averill-Snell is superb at making Latham a badass hothead whose specialty is facing down people stupid enough to think they can outsmart him. I’ve been praising this actor’s work for over a decade, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen him play a character as evil, as capable of mayhem, as Latham. Averill-Snell makes this desperado entirely credible. He also persuades us that he’s a major league liar, expert at using bits and pieces of information he’s been collecting to seem someone he’s not, knowing things that he doesn’t. There’s not a person onstage who’s not in danger from Latham, but Averill-Snell only makes this evident to us in increments, otherwise managing to seem no more than surly and ill-humored. There are some personages one wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley; I wouldn’t want to meet Averill-Snell’s Latham on a brightly lit street.
Guy also is topnotch. Her Lexi is deceptive, seeming at first to be nothing but a somewhat-obtuse plutocrat, then displaying layer after layer of perfidy as the play progresses. As her husband, Smith is the exact opposite of the confident Croesus we might expect: He’s uncomfortable in his skin, wishes he knew more about subjects as simple as how to paint a house, and is so easy to dominate, it’s amazing that his country club didn’t clean him out of his fortune years ago. As Stumpy, Green is somewhat inconsistent: it’s easy to believe his relations with Latham, hard to credit his relations with Lexi. Brian Smallheer’s fine set, featuring ladders and plastic sheeting, is perfect for this drama, as are Summer Bohnenkamp’s costumes. There’s stirring music by Aerosmith (not irrelevant to the plot), as well as original music by Adam Horovitz (of Beastie Boys fame). Dan Granke’s fight direction could be more believable.
But the real question is why: Why a noir thriller now, especially one that doesn’t in any important way interrogate the form? As suspenseful as Gloucester is, it replays all the main themes of those films of the ’40s without adding anything new, anything that might make for a re-vision. Yeah, it’s gripping at times; but hey, I have Netflix. Shouldn’t the theater give us more?