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City of Dreadful Night
by Mary Shen Barnidge

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Playwright: Don Nigro. At: The Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets: 773-398-7028;; $25. Runs through: March 16

What must be understood about the cinematic genre dubbed "film noir" is that its defining works were made cheaply and quickly, their trademark chiaroscuro scenography and minimal text arising in response to low budgets and restrictive shooting schedules. What must be understood about the literary form known as parody is that, unlike spoof—where the ridicule is immediately apparent—this brand of comedy is often all but indistinguishable from the target of its mockery, with only a few selected analogisms tipping us the wink. Playwright Don Nigro's museum-grade pastiche of classic Hollywood noir falls squarely into the latter category.

The story involves Gus, a possible gangster, who suspects that his girl friend, Anna, is two-timing him. His solution is to hire Tony, his war-damaged boyhood chum to spy on the lady, whose haunts include a diner replicating Edward Hopper's famous painting, Nighthawks. In that scenario, we have all the motifs necessary for its characters' fall, not from lofty heights, but—to paraphrase Dennis Lehane—from the curb to the gutter of a cruelly cynical urban-American dystopia.

Henry Behel's decor invokes the asymmetrical compositions associated with noir's iconic images, as does Cat Wilson's lighting, which favors knife-edged shadows cast by venetian blinds or men lurking in doorways. Matthew Isler, Justine C. Turner and Sam Guinan-Nyhart deliver their laconic speeches with appropriately frozen-lipped impassivity. There's even a video-projected roster of production credits in the ranking order and style of the period. Why, if it weren't for language forbidden by the Hayes Code, or dialogue taking reciprocal stichomythia to absurd extremes ("She went to the zoo," "What did she do?" "She looked at the animals!" "Why would she look at animals in the zoo?"), we'd almost think we were watching the real thing.

Therein lies the factor that elevates parody over mere burlesque. As Tony's shell-shocked memory gradually revives, and Ben Hertel's seemingly innocent counterman is slowly revealed to be other than he appears, we are gradually drawn in by the serpentine trail of discoveries unspooling before us. We may giggle at wordplay heavy on atmosphere but light on content—"cherry pie" is particularly fraught with significance—in the early scenes, but as reversals come faster and identities are exposed, so riveting is the suspense that we sit in rapt silence right up to the tarnished-romantic denouement.

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