Public Works Improvisational Theatre salutes noir detective lit as part of the Venice Art Crawl
By Bliss Bowen
“It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it.
I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.”
— Raymond Chandler,
“The Big Sleep”
Raymond Chandler seduced millions of us with that evocative, rhythmically crafted opening graph. More than half a century after the Chicago-born novelist’s death in La Jolla in 1959, his 1939 masterpiece “The Big Sleep” remains holy writ — and cynically wise shamus Philip Marlowe a “slumming angel,” in the words of latter-day acolyte Ross MacDonald — in the canon of noir detective fiction. It is one of the works that will be celebrated next Thursday when Public Works Improvisational Theatre salutes the genre, also referred to as “hardboiled,” at Beyond Baroque concurrent with the evening’s Venice Art Crawl.
Titled “Farewell, My Lovely” after Chandler’s 1940 classic of the same name, the evening will include dramatic readings of works by Chandler (“The Big Sleep” and 1949’s “The Little Sister”), Dashiell Hammett (1930’s “The Maltese Falcon”) and Woody Allen (“Mr. Big,” from his 1978 collection “Getting Even,” about a femme fatale asking a Marlowe-style detective to find God). In addition to the 10 readers/performers, comic Robin Roberts will appear, poet Laurel Ann Bogen will read from her detective poetry, and guitarist Vinnie Caggiano will set the mood with eclectic instrumentals, presumably riffing in tempo with Chandler’s and Hammett’s jazzy dialogue.
“I take the detective theme, and I ask certain artists to explore it in terms of their own artistry in addition to having these staged readings,” explains organizer Eric Vollmer.
“It’s a literary salon, so it’s usually dedicated to striking up a conversation about literature,” he elaborates, adding that the evening is part of a series that Public Works Improv presents four times a year at Beyond Baroque. Previous shows celebrated John Steinbeck, James Joyce and Bloomsday; a December gathering will focus on Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’ “Under Milkwood.” “We did monthly shows for 18 years, but we just switched to this format.”
In the hands of masters like Chandler and Hammett, noir fiction dresses pithy literary substance with hardboiled style, which partially explains why their all too flawed heroes (Chandler’s Marlowe, Hammett’s Sam Spade) retain iconic stature. Dames in distress and missing treasures are just a con; the real mystery they explore is that of human nature, in tough, vernacular language that — at the time of initial publication — gave voice to changing social mores and an emerging literary generation in Depression- and WWII-era America.
“I grinned at her with my head on one side. She flushed. Her hot black eyes looked mad. ‘I don’t see what there is to be cagey about,’ she snapped. ‘And I don’t like your manners.’
“‘I’m not crazy about yours,’ I said. ‘I didn’t ask to see you. You sent for me. I don’t mind your ritzing me or drinking your lunch out of a Scotch bottle. I don’t mind your showing me your legs. They’re very swell legs and it’s a pleasure to make their acquaintance. I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings. But don’t waste your time trying to cross-examine me.’”
—“The Big Sleep”
Chandler, Hammett and contemporaries like “The Postman Always Rings Twice” author James M. Cain also deglamorized California’s paradisiacal reputation while immortalizing its prejudices and temptations; in Chandler’s books, L.A.’s changeable geography is as central a character as Marlowe.
“Raymond Chandler wrote in [his essay] ‘The Simple Art of Murder,’ ‘Down these mean streets a man must go who’s not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid,’” Vollmer says. “That’s a kind of conscience that he sends. He’s playing against the prevalent notion that sunny California is this sunny place with sunny people doing sunny things. He digs into the dirt underneath. … I think he’s a great poet of Los Angeles.
“My ultimate aim is to encourage people to reread and revisit these books on their own, and also to show that this is something that you can do with your friends. Reading creates community, even though it’s a private activity.”
Public Works Improvisational Theatre salutes noir detective genre with Vinnie Caggiano, Zhenya Kechina, DJ Carlile, Laurel Ann Bogen, Lee Boek, Robin Roberts, Brian Knudson, Anna Broome, Catherine Allison and Jeffrey Van Der Byl at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 17, at Beyond Baroque, 681 N. Venice Blvd., Venice. $10 general admission; $6 seniors and students. Call (310) 822-3006 or visit publicworksimprov.com.