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'Billy & Ray' review: Labored comedy about collaboration between '40s Hollywood icons

Vincent Kartheiser (ambitious Pete Campbell on

Vincent Kartheiser (ambitious Pete Campbell on "Mad Men"), right, and Larry Pine play Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler in Mike Bencivenga's comedy about the making of the film noir "Double Indemnity." Veteran Hollywood luminary Garry Marshall directs. Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg

Vincent Kartheiser, so creepy yet oddly engaging as the ambitious Pete Campbell in "Mad Men," has genuine stage presence. Sophie von Haselberg so resembles her mother, Bette Midler, that it's hard not to imagine the snappy young actress emerging from one of mom's clams on a half shell.

And that is the most upbeat news we can squeeze out of "Billy & Ray," Mike Bencivenga's labored imagining of the tempestuous collaboration between Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler while writing the 1944 noir classic "Double Indemnity."

The other headline, not nearly as cheerful, is about Garry Marshall, superstar Hollywood director of such formative sitcoms as "Happy Days" and such iconic movies as "Pretty Woman." Marshall directed "Billy & Ray" at his own theater in Burbank, California, and clearly believes so deeply in this project that he somehow persuaded the Vineyard Theatre to devote one of its valuable nonprofit slots to the New York premiere.

The production, despite a handsome studio-bungalow set by Charlie Corcoran and enviable '40s clothes by Michael Krass, has been staged with little dramatic rhythm and/or flair.

Kartheiser has an exuberant confidence as the womanizing Viennese-Jewish Wilder, but his Jiminy Cricket energy and bizarre cartoony Austrian accent threaten to wear down more than just his new writing partner.

Larry Pine, ordinarily a splendid actor, was seriously off his game at a recent preview. He plays Chandler, an introverted, uptight, not-so-recovering alcoholic called in to help Wilder write a screenplay of James M. Cain's pulp novel. It would be hard to blame Pine if he was too bored with the project to concentrate.

Marshall, responsible for the beloved TV series "The Odd Couple," may have been similarly drawn to the unlikely pairing of these contrasting types. But the creative process tends only to be amusing to the people involved -- and not always then.

The assignment is to write a screenplay of Cain's sex-and-violence novel without showing the sex and violence that the censors would kill. Since we already know how they did it, we are left to amuse ourselves with von Haselberg's pluck as the secretary and, less so, with Drew Gehling's phone calls to the censor's office as the go-between.

In an attempt to layer the fake-Hollywood talk with real life, Bencivenga throws in a jarring subplot about Wilder's Jewish relatives in a concentration camp. Not surprisingly, this also fails.

 

WHAT "Billy and Ray"

WHERE Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th St.

INFO $70; 212-352-3101; vineyardtheatre.org

BOTTOM LINE Labored comedy about Hollywood '40s legends.

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