In a murky apartment, a muscular gent clad in trousers and slung-down suspenders plays the trumpet for a dark-haired vixen tied to a chair. He takes the instrument from his lips, but its tune blares on — yes, just as it would in Mulholland Drive’s Club Silencio. The man traces lines over the body of his captive with a knife, but do her gasps indicate fear or arousal? Before even David Lynch could tell us, the lights go out, the lady screams, and two hardboiled gumshoes are on the case.
Back in 2008, the Overtime Theater gave us The Good Samaritan, playwright Scott McDowell’s first production to feature said hardboiled gumshoes, Blake and Winters of the San Francisco Police Department. There was murder. Intrigue. A showdown. But I don’t have to tell you — as in any good serial, the protagonists’ dialogue brings us up to speed when we rejoin them in The Hard Bargain.
Detective Winters (Michael Burger) — all set with his flask and a 5 o’clock shadow — is situated to meet a paying client over coffee. No slinky damsel-in-distress type traipses into the diner, just a sure-footed broad (Caralyn Snyder, no-nonsense) who wants to find her missing kid. Detective Blake (McDowell), who’s joined his colleague at the counter, disapproves of Winters’s extracurricular work. Meanwhile — gotta love these little details — a bleach-blond and bobbed waitress files her fingernails right over the coffee pot in the corner. Oblivious, the partners-in-crime-solving take their java to-go. Official duty calls — though everyone who’s ever read pulp or seen a crime drama knows two separate cases are rarely that.
With no possible way in or out of the murky-apartment-turned-crime-scene and the musician — not his captive dame — dead, the detectives have a bona-fide whodunnit on their hands. Even stumped, the pair look elegant: There are few things so visually gratifying as the shadow cast by a fedora, and the combination of green and orange light that varnishes the characters and stage is a tastier recipe than the black-and-whites of an old-school film noir.
The only witness, the tied-up woman (Christie Walheim) holds steady in the face of interrogation — despite Winters’s (or Burger’s) favorite mode of stepping up any confrontation: yelling. Walheim effectively staves off suspicion without turning into a simpering victim. Though Winters — a known lover of whiskey and women — is clearly hooked and in need of constant babysitting, Blake’s got another situation that takes precedence: his marriage.
The tender scenes between bulldoggish Blake and his perpetually crimson-robed wife, the birdlike Anna, are unfortunately staged in a nook that causes sightline problems for some audience members, and is practically in the laps of others. Nevertheless the exchanges are touching and illustrate Blake’s character, his moral struggle — like a modern-day working mother — to find a balance between his responsibilities at work and at home.
But, as some would say is also true of artists, it’s the detective with the more profound character flaws who sees clearly into the corrupt human heart in The Hard Bargain. Perhaps this is why — though it always seems foolish — Blake finds one way or another to paint himself out of the picture when his partner will indubitably color outside the lines. Other complications — a blackmailed cutie-pie councilman and potential mob involvement — thicken the plot without adding to the play’s snappy hour-ish-long running time, and director Andrew Thornton’s staging of these events is deft on the whole.
If the show disappoints at all, it is only because The Hard Bargain is ultimately more grounded than the surreal tone established by the opening scene. But don’t let a reported droop in dreaminess keep you from enjoying the show at Overtime’s snazzy new Blue Star joint: You’re in for live noir and a good time, case closed. •