A play that tries to be a movie, and pulls lots of stage tricks to do so

Wrong Guys, Created by Ruth Maleczech for Mabou mines "Wrong Guys" is a play that yearns to be a movie, and it's great fun watching it try.

Not only does the story have roots in every detective picture ever filmed, with shades of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade stalking every scene. The production itself strives for a cinematic flow, fading and dissolving and jump-cutting from one episode to another. The stagecraft is magical, and its complete visibility -- every trick is pulled right before our eyes -- makes it all the more ingenious.

The show has visible problems, too. For one thing, the characters are too consistently no good, and their sleazy ways are tiresomely expressed in too many images ranging from mock-melodramatic to mock-pornographic. (If this were a movie, the rating would be R, for occasional language and nudity the original Sam Spade never shared the screen with.) And there's so much plot, with so little shine! No wonder the hero has trouble penetrating the mystery: When was the last time a leading experimental theater troupe drenched us in such a cascade of convoluted story-telling and character-mongering?

My solution was to shove the uninspired plot to a back burner, paying most attention to the astonishing stream of visual effects, which are aimed at underlining the show's attitude toward some serious matters -- the American dream gone wrong, the difficulty of friendship and loyalty in the jungle of cities, the sad similarity between some kinds of crime and some kinds of business. And those are just a few of the most obvious points. Subtler resonances are set off by some of the production's more mysterious methods, as when thugs surrealistically pummel and shoot one another with typewriters, in what may be an observation on the violent wordplay of "Wrong Guys" itself.

Though I have mixed emotions about "Wrong Guys," it represents a high point in the meshing of theater and film techniques." At its worst, it reminds us why private-eye yarns remain of minor importance to many serious readers and viewers , despite their long popularity. At its best, though, it demonstrates the kinds of values that can be wrung from such material when the genre is approached by a passel of uncommonly imaginative personalities with very big issues in mind. It will continue at the Public Th eater through May 31.

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