A small band of misfits, thrown together in one man’s shabby rooming-house abode, makes desperate swipes at connection in “Almost Blue,” an absorbing thriller now playing in a Theatre on Fire production at the Charlestown Working Theater.
Playwright Keith Reddin’s homage to film noir is peopled with idiosyncratic variations on that genre’s stock characters, and director Brett Marks places his focus on them in an attempt to distract from some clunky plot reversals.
At the center of the action is Phil (James Bocock), an ex-con guilty of an unspeakable crime, who says he doesn’t belong outside prison. With his hangdog face and burly physique, Bocock epitomizes the gentle giant, imbuing Phil with sympathy amid the pathos. Inside his seedy room, realized in spare but striking detail by designer Luke J. Sutherland, Phil stumbles from one gin-fueled hangover to another, unable to get past his crippling sense of guilt and regret.
As the play begins, Phil’s only human contact is his neighbor, Blue Morton (Kevin Fennessy), an oddly fussy little man who says he’s working on his history, chronicling his life “as a sexual adventurer.” Layered with hilarious and heartbreaking mannerisms, Fennessy’s performance nearly steals the show: This prissy, bowtie-and-sweater-vest-clad busybody seems the last person who would have an adventure of any kind.
Into Phil’s dead-end existence arrives a mysterious woman named Liz (Erin Brehm). She tells Phil she is the ex-wife of his former prison cellmate Steve, and that Steve is dead. Why and how she has turned up on Phil’s doorstep remains a question, but she proceeds to take Phil on a ride into the woods, then seduces him back in his room.
This is noir, so Steve (Adam Siladi) is not at all dead; in fact, he’s Phil’s next visitor. His demand? That Phil murder Liz for her betrayal. Reddin gets a little stuck on the plot here, and turns the homicidal husband into a bit of a comic foil, the kind of guy who hums “Shall We Dance” from “The King and I” while eating take-out food. One of the funniest moments in the play occurs between Steve and Blue, as they argue about their sexual adventures, each man bent on exaggeration to the point of complete fabrication.
Reddin ratchets up the tension and Marks quickens the pace for the final moments of the play, which manage to be surprising and inevitable at once. “Almost Blue” may not qualify as the most satisfying thriller, but this production does deliver a sense of people caught up in trouble beyond their control.