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A Noir Set in Berkeley?

Playwright Dan Harder marries the 1930s crime genre and contemporary Berkeley to greatly entertaining effect.

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Setting a noir detective story in the Berkeley Hills is immediately funny, for the noir genre is so deeply embedded in a certain world — the lurid, urban grit of post-depression America. The Berkeley Hills, idyllic bastion of the tenured and tony, is anything but that.

With effort, though, one could imagine a neo-noir story that, à la Blue Velvet, exposes a dirty, secret world behind wealthy Berkeley's enlightened, Craftsman-style facade. Dan Harder's A Killer Story, now playing at The Marsh in downtown Berkeley, at times seems to aspire to this more delicate project (the central detective declares his case to be a "postmodern" one). Ultimately, however, the play can't resist being an old-school Thirties noir that simply finds itself, hilariously, in the wrong place and the wrong time.

The play begins with private detective Rick (Ryan O'Donnell) in prison, although the bars of light cutting across his person are not vertical but horizontal — an homage to the classic noir image of a world peered at through Venetian blinds. Beside him are two cellmates: a tall, doe-eyed blond wearing a red evening dress and Indian sari, and an even taller, strikingly gaunt man in a white lab coat. These distinctive-looking characters turn out to be Rick's clients, Lara (Madeline H.D. Brown) and Jerry (Robert Parsons), wife and partner, respectively, of Praveen Sengupta, a Berkeley neuroscientist who went missing on the brink of making a world-altering breakthrough in cognitive enhancement. 

Although Lara and Jerry simply hire Rick to locate their missing party, the detective suspects murder from the get-go, and with Sengupta having recently betrayed both wife and partner in his romantic and intellectual escapades (or so it seems), his clients quickly emerge as likely suspects. Indeed, Rick is rather more interested in a conviction than in finding the man he was hired to locate. The question is, how do all three characters wind up in the cooler? In just over an hour, A Killer Story tells the tale. 

From this retrospective vantage point, the play proceeds as classic noir storytelling ­— what would be voice-over, if it were a film. The characters recount crucial events to the audience, which Lara appropriately refers to as her "imaginary jury," rather than act them out in real time. A live pianist scores the tellings with variations on a doleful refrain.

Harder is an engaging writer with a fondness for smugly clever alliteration and double entendre — almost to a fault, weren't the campy genre-revival able to house his indulgences so well. The same goes for his technique of having two characters make parallel speeches at once, trading off lines in a counterpoint style. The playwright tells quite a bulk of the story in this manner, testing, perhaps too much, the limits of the audience's attentive skills.

A Killer Story is above all comedic, earning most of its laughs through wry send-ups of affluent East Bay culture, which is thrown into high relief by its many disjunctures with the world of noir. In one memorable moment, Rick, in classic Sam Spade fashion, casually produces a cigarette in Lara's hillside home — one of those "pizza boxes on stilts with wrap-around sunglasses"-type marvels. Her reaction, however, is unforgivingly modern. "He took out a cigarette right then and there!" recounts Lara, her face twisting with horror at the transgression. "Right then and there in a house in Berkeley, California."

The play delights in satirically stinging the new age-y Berkeley ethos — for instance, when Lara gives an affectedly enlightened spiel about how she and Sangupta live "beyond thoughtless and life-limiting traditions" like monogamy, in an open relationship free of traditional expectations and distrust, to none other than the private eye she hired to hunt down her renegade husband.

Ultimately, however, A Killer Story seems less concerned with cultural criticism and more with having a good genre romp. It wins the audience through its earnest love for noir, and, frankly, by not running too long. As a well-crafted love letter to the lurid, grayscale world of Bogart and Bacall, postmarked Contemporary Berkeley, A Killer Story fits snugly into an hour-length play, eased into by a preceding half-hour of cocktails and lounge cabaret. That will be good enough for most theater lovers.

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