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Days of Whine and Poses

Noir-Ish Satire Knows The Score But Doesn't Hit The Right Notes

Scott Kerns knows where Megan Anderson's eyes are.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 11/12/2008

Filthy Rich

By George F. Walker

Through Dec. 14 at Everyman Theatre

It's such a thin line between the world-weary philosopher and the whiner. Tyrone, the protagonist of George F. Walker's Filthy Rich, is a jaded writer, a former journalist for an unnamed urban newspaper now trying to peck out a novel on a gray manual typewriter in a dingy office. But all he has to show for his years of effort are a whiskey bottle that's two-thirds empty and wadded-up sheets of manuscript, littering the linoleum like popcorn.

In the play's Baltimore premiere at the Everyman Theatre, Bob Rogerson plays Tyrone as a drunken old man with ruffled silver hair, dark suspenders, and a tie pulled askew. As he berates himself for the failure of his novel and the failure of his life--the blankets on the nearby office couch indicate that he sleeps here, too--he delivers a philosophical rant that's supposed to be bitingly bitter. But it's more caustic than clever, especially given Rogerson's humorless self-absorption, and ultimately it tastes like a vintage whine.

The manual typewriter and suspenders alert us that we're in a bygone era, probably the 1940s, judging by the delivery boy who shows up with a telegram and the society dame who barges in dolled up like Lauren Bacall. Tyrone tries to dazzle them both with his witty, film-noir-ish sarcasm, but the Canadian playwright Walker is no Raymond Chandler and Tyrone is no Philip Marlowe. So we get the sarcasm but not the wit.

The dame, Anne (Beth Hylton), is a film-noir staple: the good-looking rich girl who needs a private eye to clean up one of the family's messes. This one involves Michael Harrison, the reformist mayoral candidate who's gone missing, and his father, James, who runs every racket in town. Never mind that Tyrone has never been a private investigator; Anne figures that his former career as an investigative journalist is good enough, especially because his former newspaper pal Fred is mixed up in the mess.

No sooner does Tyrone toss Anne out of his office--telling her, "My civic conscience went in the toilet a long time ago"--than her kid sister Susan (Megan Anderson) shows up, just as rich, just as attractive, and just as interested in hiring Tyrone on the Harrison case. He yells at her to get out too. "You have serious psychological problems," she tells him. "Your office is disgusting and so are you."

The problem with this production of Filthy Rich is that Walker isn't really interested in Tyrone's psychological problems; the playwright's too busy running minor variations on familiar hard-boiled detective plots. And the office, where all the action takes place, proves much more interesting than its occupant.

Set designer Daniel Ettinger has created an endlessly fascinating environment. From the laundry kept in the file cabinet to the grocery bags full of papers, it really does look like a commercial office where an old bachelor has been sleeping for years. Characters are always sneaking up the outside fire escape or sticking various body parts into the functioning aquarium. And when Tyrone gets drawn into the case after all, and cops, gangsters, and blackmailers start showing up, the set's doors, chairs and venetian blinds shatter impressively in violent confrontations.

It's Jamie (Scott Kerns), the young, ambitious delivery boy, who gets the plot rolling by telling Anne that he and his "partner" Tyrone will take the case. The kid then has to convince the bitter old man that they should be partners, but Kerns is such a hopped-up live wire that he wins over the cynic behind the desk almost as easily as he does us in the seats. Jamie is a bit of a cynic as well, but in contrast to Tyrone, the youngster actually gets some pleasure out of his hard-headed pragmatism--and shares that pleasure with the audience.

Besides Kerns and the set, the best things about the production are the performances of Hylton and Anderson as the two sisters. They have a breezy, sly self-assurance about them that's irresistible. We know they're lying about something and we know their legs and cleavage are more dangerous weapons than any of the pistols that are pointed at people, but we don't care, for we are as much putty in their hands as Jamie is.

Rogerson and the director, Daniel De Raey, worked together last year on Everyman's terrific production of Donald Margulies' Sight Unseen, but this time they never quite strike the right tone. They strain to give Tyrone and the play around him a dark, weighty significance, as if they were opening a window on the soul of a middle-aged everyman, but Walker's lightweight film-noir riffs can't support the effort. The attempt drains the show of much of its humor and turns Tyrone into a curdled curmudgeon. A whiner.

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