By John Burton
LONG BRANCH – For Stanley Werse, a practicing lawyer and produced playwright, the black-and-white world of those 1940s and 1950s movies that dominated his youth – the world of mendacious femme fatales and world-weary protagonists – had a profound influence on him. So much so that he has formed the story and atmosphere for his most recent literary effort, premiering at Long Branch’s New Jersey Repertory Company this week, around that world.
Werse’s play is appropriately titled Noir, opening April 6 at the theater located at 179 Broadway.
Werse, 55, is a Middletown lawyer whose general practice concentrates on criminal law and intellectual property. But when he’s not in court and writing briefs, Werse spends his time writing for the stage.
With Noir, Werse explores the neon-lit and stark black-and-white world of film noir, a film genre that came to prominence in the years following World War II.
The world of noir grew out of a feeling of alienation and grim fatalism that for some screenwriters and directors came from their war experiences, where they sought to explore society’s underbelly and the human psyche.
Those movies, which included some that have become unqualified classics like Out of the Past, Double Indemnity and The Killers, usually incorporated devices that became tried and true tropes of the genre, such as a protagonist whose tough exterior hid a damaged soul; the good and bad girls fighting for the protagonist’s soul; and the oftentimes double- dealing partner in a criminal enterprise. The filmmakers, who were often hobbled by low budgets, developed techniques such as jarring camera angles, expressionistic use of shadows, literally dark sets (beginning to actually film on real locations as opposed to back lot sets and often after sundown) and pushed the limits of censorship of the time in their double-entendre dialogue and hints of sexuality. The genre’s influence remains pervasive, first championed by the French New Wave cineaste (who actually labeled the genre) and can be seen in the work of such contemporary filmmakers as Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese and most pronounced in the movies of the Coen Brothers.
In his play, Werse creates a crime drama set in1950s New York City, where a cynical police detective comes to the aid of a wealthy socialite who is being blackmailed.
And true to the conventions of the genre, all characters have secrets that they would like to remain hidden but are eventually revealed and there is a pervasive moral ambiguity as it shows a world of corruption and violence.
But for the playwright, it is not just homage to a long ago style of filmmaking; but a valid and true addition to the canon, “adding to the body of work,” he said.
“I hope people see it like walking into the RKO vault and discovering something new,” he said, referencing the one-time Hollywood studio that made many of the best of film noir.
Growing up in Middletown, Werse was ensconced in those movies and continues to remember them affectionately. But more than 20 years of experience as a lawyer has had an impact on his perceptions as well, which is reflected in his writing. “It is about alienation and isolation,” and an existential angst as people try to come to terms with a personal and broader, societal moral code, he believes.
Werse’s play was produced previously, in New York City in 2011 as part of that year’s Fringe Festival – North America’s largest annual multiarts festival – and performed at the Connelly Theater. When it was staged then, it was a minimalist production, with bare-bones sets and a small cast.
This production, while continuing to be done in black and white, directed by Marc Geller (who directed it in New York), expands on the earlier staging with a more elaborate set and music composed and arranged by Eric Werse, Stanley’s cousin; piano arrangements by Nancy Scharff and trumpet arrangement and performance by Bill Crawford, all current or former Middletown residents. “I think now it’s fully realized,” Werse said, in keeping with what he had envisioned for it.
“What we’re looking for is some kind of compelling theme,” said Gabe Barabas, executive producer and co-founder of New Jersey Rep, of the play selection process. “A play that maybe goes in directions that are fresh and challenging.”
New Jersey Repertory, a 67-seat theater, was founded in 1997, with the mission of giving voice primarily to new works. It receives about 1,000 scripts a year from around the world; and through its developmental workshops pares down the 25 selected to the six that will be produced annually, Barabas explained.
The theater won the 2012 American Theatre Wing’s National Theatre Company Award.
With Noir Barabas said he found “a very stylish piece,” and one that uses the film noir archetypes and “language that is very witty and clipped,” in that tradition, he said. “I think it captures the atmosphere beautifully,” he said.
Along with this work, Werse’s earlier play, Buick Becomes Electra or The Torrid Zone, was the 2010 winner of the New Jersey Playwrights Contest and was performed at William Paterson University in Wayne. Before that, his screenplay, 1954 was a semifinalist at the 2004 Austin, Texas, Film Festival screenwriting competition.
He has every plan to continue his law career, but will continue to write for the stage. He sees it as a “natural progression” of his legal work, in some regards, which requires considerable reading and writing. But these efforts allow him to flex different muscles and “You can distill real life into the essence of drama,” and hopefully entertain an audience, he said.
His next effort is a play he describes as an exploration of the artistic temperament and integrity.