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A CurtainUp Review
High Priest of California by Elyse Sommer

The world was his oyster - and women his pearls!
---the front cover copy of the first edition of High Priest of California, which continued on the back with A strange, shocking novel . . . as true as a Federal Reserve bill.
David Mogentale  &  Carol Sirugo
David Mogentale & Carol Sirugo
(Photograph: Fouad Salloum)
Russell Haxby, the pearl collector referred to above, is the first of pulp noir novelist Charles Willeford's trademark anti-heroes: an ordinary guy with a penchant for amoral and sometimes violent mischief making that is fed by boredom and restless ambition.

High Priest In California, the novel in which Haxby features as the narrator and central figure, launched Willeford's writing career after he retired from the US Air Force at age 37. The fifteen years since Willeford's death have boosted rather than dimmed his appeal. Fans and fellow writers who admire and collect his work have, in fact, made him something of a legendary practitioner of the hard-boiled, serio-comic genre.

While one of his popular Hoke Moseley detective novels, Miami Dreams, was made into a movie (starring Alec Baldwin and Jennifer Jason Leigh), High Priest is the only Willeford book to be adapted for the stage -- and by the author himself. Given their successful embrace of Charles Bukowski, another writer whose work is not associated with the theatrical canon, it's easy to understand the 29th Street Rep being attracted to High Priest' with its t morally reprehensible main character's ruthless cat and mouse seduction of a woman who personifies the cliche of the lonely spinster but whose life is full of surprises that include a husband who's a burned out ex-middle-weight boxer.

Having an an extant play script available is certainly more convenient than writing one's own adaptation as Leo Farley and Jonathan Powers had to do with the Bukowski stories staged under the umbrella title of South of No North (see link). It's too bad that Willeford didn't have Farley and Powers, or some other more theater savvy folks, to help him sharpen and clarify his two main characters and hang onto all the stylish darkness of his written words.

The novice playwright simplified the staging by combining Alyce and Russell's meeting in a dance hall and their first "date" in her apartment. This process, however, also eliminated some of the edgy dialogue and revealing details about why Russell is there ("It was one of those dance halls where men come to pick up something, and women come to be picked up. I was there because I was bored") as well as what it was about Alyce that made him ask her to dance (I was ready to leave. Then I saw the woman . . . She looked as out-of-place in that smoky atmosphere as I would have looked in a Salinas lettuce-pickers camp).

Fortunately Farley is at hand to downplay the Willeford script's fault lines and to create a highly entertaining two hours without a dull moment. The director engages the audience even before the play officially begins by having James E. Smith move around the living room of an apartment. that's somewhat more upscale looking than most of the Rep's sets. But never fear, this may be low rather than high grunge, but on closer examination, the furnishing and the room's lone pre-scene occupant evoke an aura of things not being quite right that places us firmly in 29th Street Rep territory. Smith, wearing a boxer's robe which identifies him as Blackie Victor, settles into an armchair as a Western, complete small portable television set replays Ft. Apache, complete with a commercial for "macaroni the San Francisco treat."

Even when Ft. Apache ends and a bell sends Blackie jumping into a shadow boxing pose and High Priest gets going, Blackie never says much -- but his being a boxer and that television set are clues to the twists and turns of Russell's unstoppable seduction of Alyce. Some of the other clues scattered though the four well-paced scenes are misleading and confusing (e.g. a switchblade in the pocket of a man for whom it seems an odd accessory even though he wields it as handily as a butter knife), but the actors playing all the decidedly off-the-beaten path characters are good enough to reel you in and get caught up in the mounting suspense.

As Russell Haxby, David Morgentale adds another riveting character to his resume. Like the title character of Bobby Supreme and Eddie in Fool For Love, he portrays this " high priest" of dream salesmanship with a well-blended mix of charm and creepiness -- and just the right touch of comic flair. Carol Sirugo as Alyce displays the fragility of The Glass Menagerie's Laura (as evident by her adult education efforts scattered around the apartment and the "family ", of damaged pets who echo her own damaged psyche). But Alyce, like Russell, has her own creepy streak, and Ms. Sirugo effectively taps into that as well.

The supporting players are also first rate. James E. Smith, though given few lines and less beat-up looking than some old boxers, is on target as the volatile Blackie. Paula Ewin taps into the earthy outspokenness of Alyce's cousin and apartment mate Ruthie. Jerry Lewkowitz as her married lover is not too dense to be just a little suspicious of Russell. Tim Corcoran makes the most of his brief apparance as an unbribable neighborhood policeman.

What High Priest lacks in terms of capturing all the original pulp novel's satiric dialogue and clarifying the loose ends is offset by the performances and the many little details of the staging: Tim Cramer's authentic music and the rainfall he symbolically sends down on Willeford's transient winners in an inevitable losing game. . . the orange Alyce peels for Blackie which fills the theater with its aroma. Audiences who appreciate such attention to authneticity and the chance to enjoy two hours of noir-ish fun, may well require the company stage manager to stock up on enough oranges for a run beyond the current closing date.

Fool for Love
South of No North (Stories of the Buried Life)>
Tracers Bobby Supreme

High Priest of California
Written by Charles Willeford
Directed by Leo Farley
Cast: Tim Corcoran (Police Officer), Paula Ewin (Ruthie Mansfield), Jerry Lewkowitz (Stanley Sinkiewicz), David Mogentale(Russell Haxby), Carol Sirugo (Alyce Victor), James E. Smith (Blackie Victor).
Set Design: Mark Smyczak
Costume Design: Michele Metcalf
Lighting Design: Stewart Wagner
Original Music and Sound Design: Tim Cramer
Running time: 2 hours plus intermission
212 West 29th Street (7th/8th Ave) 212-206-1515 or
2/10/03-3/29/03; opening 2/19/03.
Monday to Saturday at 8:00 PM -- $29
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on February 19, 2003performance
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