December 09, 2008, 9:49 a.m.
"Gunmetal Blues" rises out of the darkened Invisible Theatre stage as a 1930s nightclub gangster caper that's four parts atmosphere and one part action, with a twist. Armen Dirtadian looks terrific as Sam Galahad, the well-dressed loser who's old enough to know better but has never learned to resist.
Dirtadian is well-known around Tucson for his dashing roles as the broad-shouldered leading man at Gaslight Theatre, but is keeping his personality in the shadows here. He plays a private eye so down on his luck, no client is ever turned away from his tattered office.
Betsy Kruse Craig (another Gaslight star) steps into the IT spotlight as that tall blonde who doesn't care how much trouble Sam gets sucked into. She also plays three other blondes with their own suspicious motives.
Taking on several additional roles is Mike Padilla, who mostly is Buddy Toupee, the tuxedo-clad piano man so cynical he'd be suspicious of Santa Claus. Occasionally Padilla jumps up to play a cop or a cab driver or something, filling out scenes the way he fills out the songs written by Craig Bohmler and Marion Adler.
Scott Wentworth gets the credit for dialogue that adds poetry to the hard-boiled writing style we associate with pulp fiction. Sam can tell the blonde is approaching by "the sound of expensive shoes on cheap linoleum." She is an elegantly groomed executive working in an office tower that is "30 stories of greed under glass."
Not long after asking "Where do they go, the dreams we're always chasing?" Sam remembers how the blonde "was staring at her own face in the mirror, like she was asking for directions."
There are plenty of songs, too, in this musical mystery romance - 17 of them, to be exact. The title track is strongest, "Gunmetal blues, the color of a bruise." Most amusing is "The Blonde Song," describing all the different kinds of blondes in the world, from the everyday bleached blonde to the extremely rare Schopenhauer blonde.
Unfortunately, we never learn exactly what a Schopenhauer blonde might be, but the image is terrific.
Gail Fitzhugh is at the helm as director, piloting this ship of fools through the straits of apprehension. She cleverly avoids the shallows of satire and the shoals of stereotype. Instead, the world of "Gunmetal Blues" becomes a kind of parallel universe where all the women are blonde and all the men wear trench coats because it's always raining.
Craig is effective at giving each of the four females a distinctive personality. The program billing is confusing, though, because she is only listed as The Blonde. Buddy Toupee isn't named, either. He's just identified as The Piano Player.
This lack of identity is part of the fevered dream effect, where you aren't supposed to be exactly sure what is going on. Basically, Sam gets a client, then there is a murder. The case gets complicated and the murder is solved.
Just don't imagine the butler did it. In this smoky world of swirling desperation full of grasping hands and tense agendas, nobody's got a butler. The only high-caliber character in this show is named Smith & Wesson.