What a delightful evening of sublime silliness! Jonas Oppenheim's The Foul Stench of Death, Parts I & II is a very clever, very funny series of "serialized one-act episodes" that poke fun at the conventions of film noir while embracing the very pretensions that make them such a target. Set in the shadowy world of late 1940s Los Angeles, in Part I, über detective Harem gets caught up in a circuitous search for a screenplay worth millions. In Part II, The One About The Severed Hand That Kills People (set on Halloween night, of course), Harem tracks a devilishly busy little hand that gleefully wreaks havoc all over L.A. Occasionally the inspiration that lifts the evening to the heights of giddiness does seem a bit tired, particularly in the less-polished second half. But Oppenheim's sense of satire is very sharply drawn, his affection for (and knowledge of) the genre he lampoons is readily apparent, and for every joke that falls flat, there are two or three more that induce guffaws of helpless laughter.
Directed with stylish flair by Padraic Lillis, the energy was kept fast and loose and the evening flew at such a fast pace that any inconsistencies or anachronisms (and there were plenty) were rendered unimportant. Terrific use was made of shadows and light (lighting by John-Paul Szczepanski), and setting the entire piece in an affectionate replica of an old-fashioned movie palace (complete with silver screen and studio-signature title music) was inspired. (Set by Rob Odorisio, sound by Craig Lenti) The wonderful ensemble (looking fabulous in Lea Umberger's faithful, mostly black-and-white costumes) played everything straight, and it was their innocent belief in every outrageous word they spoke and bizarre action they performed that gave the production a sheen of polished sincerity that was delicious. Particularly outstanding were Dennis McNitt as Harem, a charming mixture of Humphrey Bogart, Dana Andres, Dick Powell and any other '40s film detective, Gretchen McGinty as an ultra-cool, ultra-coo-coo femme fatale, Jenny Langsam as a medium with 20/20 hindsight (and as a siren, which had to be seen to be believed), and Kevin Cristaldi and Patrick Burch in a variety of roles that showcased both their versatility and sly senses of fun.
The Foul Stench of Death, Pts. I & II was the inaugural production of Kilt & Bagel Productions, Inc., and it was a smart one, indeed. Funny, beguiling and totally entertaining, there are far worse ways to spend an evening, and few better.
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Copyright 2001 Doug DeVita