4/1: The NOIR End of the Street

NoirBThey told me there was a broken light for every heart on Broadway…and when the play called NOIR hits the stage in downtown Long Branch, you can take it to the bank that a femme fatale and a greenhorn gumshoe had better keep aware of their surroundings.  (photo by SuzAnne Barabas)

I.

The “Middletown side of Red Bank,” they call it. That place just across the river where the sidewalk races your dreams to see which one can run out faster than a rube’s luck at a find-the-lady table. It wasn’t much to look at — a couple of beaten-down country clubs, a little roadside joint called Nick’s or somesuch — but as I slid over Cooper’s Bridge I picked up a faceful of north wind that damn near knocked my hat into the drink, and reminded me that I wasn’t exactly enjoying this view from behind the glass of a vodka Collins at the Pearl Lounge.

I’d come to this godforsaken little acre to check out a tip from Gabe the Hungarian, a character I knew from too many nights spent down on the dark end of Broadway Long Branch — a neighborhood that’d long since been given over to the odd bit of Leon Rainbow graffiti and the occasional zombie flick. The Hungarian and his missus, who pretty much had the whole block to do with as they pleased after hours, were in the business of putting on certain types of entertainments for certain discerning customers, at a little out-of-the-way establishment called New Jersey Repertory Company — and their “opening night receptions” were the kind of near-legendary wingdings that I for one wouldn’t miss for the world.

Seems that a lawyer by the name of Stan Werse had come to them some weeks back, with a story so far-fetched that it naturally intrigued my Hungarian friend into pondering whether he could do business with this tall stranger who drove a late-model Chrysler with a kiddie seat strapped into the back. I asked Gabe for the facts, just the facts, and he riffed to the effect that “Andrews has left town, Klein is dead, Lydecker is dead, Betty…well she’s still alive, but someone has beat the pretty off her. Clay Holden has his first big chance as a detective…but this is one case that he may not want to solve.”

He showed me a folder that the counselor had left with him, marked only with a single word on the front: NOIR. I told him I’d look into this Werse guy, mostly as a favor, and set off down the block to see Ingrid at the Free Public Library.

My request to grab some interwebs time was met with a little European ice, although things warmed up considerably after I paid my fine for never bringing back the Wally Stroby novel I checked out in 2009. An online once-over told me that our attorney friend was strictly on the square — lifelong Jersey guy, State Bar Association, Widener School of Law, former prosecutor, municipal public defender in places like Middletown, Tinton Falls, Union Beach — and that he “loves politics and is an accomplished Playwright.”

Hot-botting the word “Noir,” I landed on the Asbury Pulp site and learned that it’s “a conflation of two phenomena” that says in essence, “doom is cool. You just met a woman, you had your first kiss, you’re six weeks away from the gas chamber, you’re fucked, and you’re happy about it.”

I scratched the skintag on the back of my neck and stared at the screen while the Freep staff made noises about closing up. Something about this whole business had taken a turn for the Werse, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Sure, the public defender was hardly the first solid citizen to have developed a taste for the darker side of Noir — to slip out of the suburban house for a dance with that lurid and seedy genre of empowered temptresses and damaged anti-heroes and streets lit only by the embers of an unfiltered Chesterfield — but it still didn’t add up. Why would a hard-working professional and respectable family man risk everything, just to throw in for a couple of hours with characters like a bitter and cynical cop, a mystery woman and “a not-as-dumb-as-he-looks resident enforcer?” And why in Sam Hill would he use his real name? I grabbed my hat and decided to pay a visit to our playwright.

NoirAII.

The single-name shingle on the door told me that Stan Werse was a Lone Wolf in private practice — and the fact that he answered his own phone suggested it was the kind of one-man office where Philip Marlowe could make himself at home. Werse in person was a long drink of water; dressed in black like Johnny Cash and given over to pronouncements like “never trust trust a policeman…just when you think one’s alright, he turns legit.” I was about to remark how much he sounded like a character from an old movie when it hit me: The Asphalt Jungle. The cat was quoting verbatim dialogue from Asphalt Jungle, and Out of the Past and The Big Sleep and a dozen other vintage Films Noir from the 1940s and 50s.

The public servant took a bottle of something out of his desk and set it down in front of me, with the assurance that “it’s a gift, for you…these guys are clients of mine.” I was about to uncap it and take a swig when I noticed the grinning skull on the label, and the big lettering that read Blair’s Death Sauce.

“I’ve been bought for less, counselor — and tempted by spicier,” I jibed, playing abstractly with the little plastic death’s-head that dangled like a hoodoo totem from the neck of the bottle.

The counselor wasn’t even pretending to laugh, however — a shadow crossed his face as he leaned back in his chair, looked past me and intoned, “We’re from the generation of unfulfilled dreams and diminished returns…we never had our Woodstock. We went to the movies in Middletown.”

I was about to smartphone the nearest film-quote website when it dawned on me that this wasn’t a snippet of existential fatalism from some character played by Robert Ryan or Van Heflin. This was the playwright in his own words, and the playwright was talking like a man who had a story to get off his chest — a story behind a story.

I decided to drop the vaudeville act and get right down to brass tacks. “What’s the skinny, Stanley? What can you tell me about NOIR?”

“Noir? Noir is about the anxiety, the violence, alienation and obsession that permeate those stories,” the lawyer mused, peering through the venetians at an unseen something outside the soulless officeplex. “It’s also a style…there’s a certain hyperreality to the characters, and on the other hand a gritty reality that people didn’t want to face.”

“Actually, I meant…”

“The cataclysm of World War Two resonated with the public…violent death became commonplace,” the counselor continued, standing up as if to make a summation. “The language in the Noir stories was elevated, and the lines were phenomenal.”

“Not noir…NOIR!” I spat, twisting the cap off the Blair’s bottle as if wringing some palookaville fink’s neck. “What can you tell me about the play called NOIR? I mean, I got a heavy deadline over at the paper and all…”

The lawyer sat back down, dropping into his swivel seat with something akin to a whole-body sigh. At length he rolled his thoughts into words on his tongue, and said,”NOIR is like…it’s like walking into a vault at RKO Pictures, and finding a great film that was never released.”

As he talked, the whole twisted backstory behind this NOIR episode came into focus. How after winning a New Jersey Playwriting competition in 2010, he felt a compulsion to write “something more visceral” — and how his award winning “neo-noir” screenplay 1954 cemented his interest in that bygone era, as well as a sobering realization that “all noirs require a secret…and our lives today are anything but secret.”

Turns out too that our Lone Wolf legal eagle had some helpers after all — including one Marc Geller, a director type who called the shots when Werse’s script first went public at the 2011 New York International Fringe Festival. It’s probably no coincidence that Geller’s been there on the scene for this world premiere engagement in Long Branch; a gig that goes up in previews on April 4 and runs through May 5 before high-tailing it out of LB. He’s apparently called in some chits and assembled a crew for this caper that features Darrell Glasgow as the greenhorn detective, Catherine LeFrere as the lady of mystery, along with Thomas Grube and Michael McCoy — the sort of pros who seem to pop up in a totally different city, under a totally different name, every couple of months.

Werse, for his part, had somehow managed to get some innocent parties caught up in this whole thing — including his brother Eric, who he talked into composing some original music and a “mood-setting” song that spotlight the trumpet playing of Bill Crawford, and even an arrangement by Middletown-based Christian singer Nancy Scharff. I mean, you kind of expect a jazz cat to be hanging around this lowlife scene…but the lady who does the big Christmas benefit shows at the Count Basie?

III.

While he spilled the details, I was beginning to sweat like a hunk of rancid pork that some joker had carved into a likeness of Robin Williams — and to feel a sting that started in my fingers and worked its way into my scalp, my nose, my lips and the booger-vaults of my bloodshot eyes. Was it me, or was it starting to get hotter than fenced plutonium in here? I took an impulsive gulp from the bottle in front of me, and unfortunately lived to regret it.

“My play starts as a flashback, and has a narration,” the attorney continued. “It has certain noir conventions — the spider woman who ensnares men; the sap who gets drawn into it — but the last thing you want is to lapse into camp or self-parody.”

“Know what I want, counselor? I want to believe you’ve been watching too many of those Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake pictures,” I said, playing it cool as possible as I hoisted my sweat-drenched form from my chair with a hideous sucking sound.

“I want to believe that you’ve got more sense than to mess around and get played the chump by the shadowy side of the street. And I want to know that when quitting time comes this evening, you’ll be hurrying home to Millstone, to that beautiful family of yours, to take stock of what’s real in this world, and to swear off the fatalism, the obsession, the self-doubt that can sap a Noir fan’s soul.”

“Self-doubt,” the playwright repeated, swiveling around to face the wall as I saw myself out of the room through blazing and blinded eyes. “My moment of self-doubt has lasted from 1958 to the present.”

I crashed and stumbled down to the stairs to the lobby while a symphony of delicious, white-hot agony crescendoed through every soaked fiber of my being, and the foyer floor rose up to greet me as I landed on the gift bottle that I’d hastily pocketed on my way out the law office. I watched like a dead man through pain-puffed eyes as the thick, dark red liquid oozed out of the broken bottle — and I thought, in those moments before everything went crimson, that if NOIR the play kicks ass even a fraction as much as this Death Sauce, then the Jersey Shore has anointed itself a new Philosopher King of a delightfully damned place called Noir.

Ticket reservations, showtimes and additional information on NOIR can be found right here.

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