Here’s to you, Frankie Payne!

birdsbannerBy Ande Jacobson

Pear Avenue Theatre’s May production is a fun one. Birds of a Feather, written by local playwright Paul Braverman, is the third and final chapter in the Frankie Payne trilogy. We follow Payne’s unpredictable path through Boston’s criminal underworld. She strikes sometimes uneasy (and often humorous) alliances with the shady characters there to right the wrongs that the police can’t always correct. This episode takes place in Boston from 31 October – 3 November 1965 and has a few surprises in store for audiences.

Frankie Payne (Diane Tasca) was a detective with the Boston PD at one time, but, as audiences found out in the first two installments of her story (No Good Deed and The Apple Never Falls), she burned out and left the force to become a private eye. As such, she’s a hard-drinking loner who gets the job done. Her former partner, Detective Vince Falcone (Todd Wright), is probably the only person in the world she really trusts, and they still work well together, sometimes communicating with no more than a look. This time though, we learn a bit more about Payne’s and Falcone’s backgrounds, and we get to see some new facets of Frankie’s character. There is more than meets the eye to the irascible Frankie Payne.

As this part of the story begins, the Irish gangs are fighting for control over Boston. None of them want the Mafia to take over, but they also don’t want to yield to each other or to the authorities. Consequently, there are numerous thugs on both sides of the law including FBI agents Ben Allen (C. D. Feinstein) and Fred Dooley (Dan Roach), and gangsters Howie Murphy (Keith Marshall), Buddy McLean (Jerry Hitchcock), Tommy O’Reilly (Keith Larson) and Sean Kineen (Troy Johnson) as well as the femme fatale, Hannah Malone (Adrienne Walters), who is currently Frankie’s client. The story moves quickly, and the alliances shift as the plot serpentines to its final resolution. This is a story told in the film noir style, including a couple of very nicely executed voiceovers (accompanied by some sexy saxophone sounds) coinciding with Frankie’s appearances early in each act.

Michael Champlin directs this final chapter of Braverman’s trilogy. Champlin makes great use of Norm Beamer’s set that is laid out in sections so that scene changes are accomplished merely with actors entering other sections of the stage combined with careful shifts in the lighting. Payne’s office, with desk and bookcase, occupy the downstage right corner. The downstage left corner houses a couch signifying an apartment. A platform covers the entire upstage half of the performance space and sports two hanging pendant lamps and a table with several folding chairs nearby. The center is raised above the rest of the platform covered by a scrim concealing what lies beyond until it is needed.

Doors adorn the four corners of the set allowing each area to have a private entrance. The upstage platform is easily repurposed for various locations such as a bowling alley, a basement, and a police station to name a few. Execution of Champlin’s sound design and Jeff Swan’s lighting design combine with the action providing the perfect ambiance. Although sparse, the props add some nice touches such as close to a dozen different gin bottles on the bookcase and the rotary phone on Frankie’s desk.

The Payne / Falcone banter is back, and it’s clear that these characters have a special connection that Tasca and Wright deftly capture. In this installment though, Payne is more vulnerable than she has been in the past. While she and Falcone continue their sibling-like rapport, she gets close to Ben Allen in a different, steamier way. Tasca and Feinstein send sparks flying, lighting a fire we’ve not previously seen Frankie ignite.

On the gangster side, there’s plenty of bravado and chicanery. The standouts are Marshall and Johnson who have some very nice repartee. Marshall’s rhythm sounds a bit like a Chicago gangster from the prohibition era, but that seems to work for Murphy. Johnson has refined his Northern Irish dialect and manner to be quite believable, all the way down to depicting that fiery Irish temper when Kineen is crossed. And all of the fight scenes are stunningly realistic. Beware, if one is sitting in the front row, there are a couple of instances where the action comes pretty close.

On opening night, there were a few line flips or names missed, but nothing that detracted from the story. This Pear production will appeal to all those who love a good detective yarn. Even having read the script prior to seeing the gala performance, the presentation held some nice surprises for me. The writing is smart, mixes just the right portions of humor, tension, and darkness, and although there isn’t exactly a happy ending, true to the noir style, it is a satisfying one. Although the play is part of a trilogy, it’s not necessary to have seen the previous two installments. Each piece of the story stands alone beautifully. Here’s to you, Frankie Payne!

What: Birds of a Feather

Where: Pear Avenue Theatre, 1220 Pear Avenue, Unit K, Mountain View, CA 94043

When: Continues through 24 May 2015, Thursdays-Saturdays at 8PM, Sundays at 2PM.

See http://www.thepear.org or call (650)254-1148 for tickets or more information.

(Photo courtesy of The Pear)

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