AT THE END of the first act of Bloomington Civic Theatre's strange and compelling take on the musical City of Angels, the writer Stine (Carl Schoenborn) and his detective creation Stone (Eric Webster) face off in "You're Nothing Without Me." The private dick has had it with his maker's sellout to Hollywood; for his part, the writer wishes his characters would shut the hell up (except when they make him money). It's the very real business that fantasies can become.
And it's emblematic of messy incursions across the border between the concrete and the imagined that generally sum up the more interesting aspects of our existence. What's fairly remarkable here is that a community theater is taking on this early 1990s Tony-winner with such assurance, as well as an enthusiastic embrace of its dark textures and crackling cynicism.
The action takes place on two tracks. In the world we recognize, Schoenborn's scribbler is a novelist lured to L.A. in the 1940s to adapt his noir novel for maniacally demanding movie mogul Buddy (Michael Fischetti), while his marriage to Gabby (Laurel Armstrong) erodes due to his wandering eye (and other parts). Meanwhile, we watch Webster's Stone unravel a case involving the alluring Alaura (Natasha Oreskovich) and her missing stepdaughter.
City of Angels
Bloomington Civic Theatre
through September 19
Stone's travails involve the inevitable surprise ass-kicking, the spontaneous seduction from the troubled young hottie, and his ex-partner from the police force looking to bring him down one way or the other. The playbook is straight from Raymond Chandler, which is an appreciative observation rather than a criticism. Webster strides through it all with determined charisma, as well as a brand of irony that wasn't entirely absent from the hard-bitten fiction from which this show derives its inspiration.
Of course Stine is finding out the hard way that his inspiration is withering under Buddy's crass demands, but Stine is such a schmuck in his own right that we scarcely care. We're dealing with the hangover after the flash of insight, the prostitution that comes with cashing in on art—paralleled in a subplot in Stone's story, in which his onetime love Bobbi (Armstrong) comes to ruin after making a bid for stardom (she goes from the casting couch to the brothel, offstage, unheralded).
As a counterpoint to all these minor keys is a 17-piece orchestra that provides a visceral texture so often missing from keyboard-driven musical ensembles, and a lighting design by Wu Chen Khoo that is so minimal that audience members emerged into the intermission like moles blinking into a near-forgotten sun. Which is to say, in depicting a story about selling out and playing it safe, director Randy Reyes and his artistic team have opted for some bold choices in service to this dark and uncompromising story.
Stone eventually escapes mortal peril and unravels all the double-crosses and rip-offs (along the way, Tracie Hodgdon delivers "You Can Always Count on Me" in her dual movie/real-life roles, flipping the mirror in a doormat's lament). Meanwhile, Stine pretty much goes down the tubes—until Stone steps into reality and bolsters his literary parent just when he's most needed.
The ending of City of Angels provides an appropriate bow to wrap up what has passed before. Based on the idea that reality is as slippery and malleable as anything typed on a Smith Corona or MacBook, it finally encompasses the heartening notion that we might as well hammer out our own intrigues, cliffhangers, and eventual happy endings.
The same could perhaps be said for BCT. The company has gone for something weird, sophisticated, and bleakly stirring this time out. As Stone says early on (via Stine), it's like "a pretty girl with the clap." You might know better, but you can't quite stay away.