“The Maltese Falcon” represents new territory for Book-It Repertory Theatre, in a new collaboration with Café Nordo. Dished out with cocktails and dinner, the show goes down easy.
Family sagas, satirical comedies, wistful memoirs and picturesque Old West tales — in nearly three decades of fashioning theater scripts from books of prose, Book-It Repertory Theatre has tackled many literary genres.
Now the company has added another one. Call it old-school crime fiction or literature noir, “The Maltese Falcon” represents new territory for Book-It, in a new collaboration with Café Nordo. Dished out with cocktails and dinner, the show goes down easy. Yet it can’t entirely escape comparison with an earlier adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel that remains definitive — director John Huston’s 1941 movie, crowned by critic James Agee as “the best private-eye melodrama ever made.”
Humphrey Bogart’s portrayal of the jaded and bemused San Francisco shamus-for-hire Sam Spade most sticks in your mind. Mary Astor’s turn as a seductress who should have “danger” tattooed across her pretty forehead is also quintessential.
‘The Maltese Falcon’
By Dashiell Hammett, adapted by Book-It Repertory Theatre. Through April 1 at Nordo’s Culinarium, 109 S. Main St., Seattle; $99, includes dinner (206-216-0833 or book-it.org).
Any stage version would need to counter Bogart’s heavy-lidded, quick-triggered, mythmaking Sam. But Hollywood cast the dark-haired, medium height Bogie, instead of the tall “blond Satan” Hammett described. That’s Hollywood. Now Book-It has cast an African-American actor as Sam, and that’s theater.
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Arlando Smith cops none of Bogie’s trademark mannerisms (the slight lisp, wiseguy sneer, rat-a-tat delivery of dialogue). At first his more relaxed approach to the role seems too bland. But once you stop expecting a Bogie imitation, you can appreciate Smith’s Sam for his laconic charm, cool intelligence and ability to talk and punch his way out of tough situations. (The violence is well-choreographed and deliberately cartoonish.)
A musical prelude exudes the swoony, late-night atmosphere of noir San Francisco with sophisticated jazz standards like Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo,” performed with élan by the saucy Femme Fatales trio. And a narrator sets the scene: the office of gumshoes Archer and Spade, where their preternaturally spunky gal Friday, Effie (Opal Peachey) announces a lady wants to speak to Sam. And she’s a “knockout.”
That would be the russet-haired Brigid O’Shaughnessy (aka Miss Wonderly) played by Kjerstine Rose Anderson with the right cocktail of feigned innocence and mercurial guile. “What can I do for you?” asks Sam, and so begins a nasty little yarn of murder and greed, double-crosses and blind alleys inspired in part by Hammett’s years as a Pinkerton detective. And the falcon? It is a coveted bird statue, and one heck of a McGuffin. (The original film prop fetched $4 million at auction.)
The novel is so reliant on volleys of dialogue, and blow-by-blow descriptions of short bursts of action, it reads almost like a script. (No wonder Hammett books were made into movies.)
Adaptor-director Jane Jones and co-adapter Kevin McKeon take full advantage of the hard-boiled patter, while keeping short scenes snappy and an increasingly tangled plot clear. Annastasia Workman’s occasional background music accentuates shifts of mood and spurts of fisticuffs, like a film score. And Ryan A. Dunn’s lighting borrows film-noir tropes like those slatted shadows of venetian blinds.
What can be frustrating are the unreliable sightlines, as scenes ricochet between two pocket stages in Nordo’s long, narrow space. Depending on where you sit, it can be difficult to see Sam react to Brigid’s sexual advances, or try to checkmate two other shady characters: Gutman (a scenery-chewing homage by Aaron T. Moore to the film’s portly co-star Sydney Greenstreet), and the devious, tuxedoed con artist Joel Cairo (Tom Dang).
What the film leaves out from the book (or the censors would have) are scattered references to homosexuality that the play leaves in. Cairo is called a “queer” and a “fairy,” and there are unambiguous suggestions that Gutman is a sugar daddy to his trigger-happy young errand boy Wilmer (Jesica Avellone).
If Sam talks about these three men with homophobia-tinged disdain, he’s disdainful of almost everyone — and perfectly willing to send his female lover up the river for her sins.
But not before we’ve munched on a roast-beef appetizer, lentil salad and chicken dumplings. Special cocktails are sipped. And at the end of the caper, there’s a droll dessert: an eyeball-shape panna cotta with a falcon-shape cookie.