NiCk and NOra : Hard- Boiled Detective Work and MArriage
Kicking off our upcoming 2018-2019 season, Lucia Frangione (who previously appeared in our 2014 production of FAREWELL, MY LOVELY) has adapted Dashiell Hammet's famous story, The Thin Man, for a brand new, world-premiere production. We talked with Lucia about her work in writing and adapting THE THIN MAN, and the heroic couple at the centre of the action, Nick and Nora Charles.
(NOTE: this interview has been edited for clarity and length)
What drew you to adapt Dashiell Hammet's classic story of THE THIN MAN for the stage?
It was Craig Hall's idea to put me and Dashiell Hammett together. I love to play with rhythm and language and so did he, so it felt like a compatible fit. I did a synopsis for an adaptation of The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon and loved both for different reasons, but I couldn't wait to put Nick and Nora on the stage so I started with them. I'm always looking to write exciting roles for women in the theatre and this story offers up some juicy characters for both genders and a diverse cast which has always been important to me. I tend to write three plays at a time and all within a certain theme. Right now my focus is on family: how to negotiate differences, the importance of loyalty, functioning as a family outside of the typical construct. Nick and Nora are a family of two. They face the dark underbelly of society together and they do so with elegance, wit and mutual respect.
It's rare to find a male and female detective duo, and even more rare to find a detective couple. What special and unique dynamics do you find the heroes, Nick and Nora Charles, bring to the usual "detective story?"
What is so interesting to me is almost everyone I've spoken to fondly thinks of Nick and Nora as a detective team. We want them to be. We remember them that way. But really, if you read the novel or watch the movie, Nora is actually given very little to do. She practically disappears halfway through, popping in occasionally with a martini and her dog, Asta. Though I have been quite faithful to the plot of The Thin Man, I've followed the public imagination and made Nora much more of an equal partner to Nick. In The Thin Man, Nick and Nora are surrounded by a gaggle of hilarious and volatile personalities, especially the Wynant family. As the murder mystery gets unpacked, it's a joy and frankly a comfort for me to see a married couple navigate these murky waters together as a loving, honest and trusting team. There's a real sense that Nick and Nora are the only two sane people in a mad mad world. I wonder if Dashiell Hammett felt that way about the love of his life, Lillian Hellman? Like Nick and Nora, they were an elegant, highly intelligent, "it" couple of their time, but they were also outsiders socially and politically. I find this all very fascinating, the dark and the light in this story. As for what a husband and wife team do for the hard-boiled genre...they lovingly take the piss out of each other constantly. Sometimes this relieves tension, sometimes it creates tension. It keeps the story grounded, Nick and Nora are real, so we care about them and what happens to them. They make being married sexy!
The original story and hugely successful film adaptation came out in 1934. How have you found it adapting this story for a modern audience? What appeals across time and place? What no longer quite works or makes sense today?
Whenever I write a show I have to ask myself, "Why am I putting this out into the world?" It's very important to me to entertain my audience while also offering up some food for thought. I love to rollercoaster a plot with highs of laughter and then dead drop into the dark, then shoot back up again with hope. The Thin Man does this. It's tricky doing an adaptation of a work because our sensibilities have changed. Sexism, racism and homophobia run rampant through anything written in this era and earlier. I don't want to put anything on stage that diminishes anyone just because it "was the the way it was". However, I also don't want to white wash the past. Luckily, Nick and Nora are very progressive. I can maintain the grit and prejudice of the 1930s because we experience it through the eyes of Nick and Nora who have a different view. Nora was inspired by Lillian Hellman, Hammett's lover, a famous but notorious playwright, a childless divorcee and a Jewish member of the communist party. All of these things made her an outsider. The actor who played Nora in the film was Myrna Loy. Loy was a studio name given to Myrna who looked "exotic" and started off her career doing "yellow face", playing a lot of Chinese women in films like The Mask of Fu Manchu. So, there is a kind of poetic justice in making Nora Chinese American in the stage version of the story. But it also makes sense for the story itself. Nora is a wealthy heiress from San Francisco who seems to have married later in life and chosen to not have children. They celebrate Christmas with a room full of strangers. It makes sense that Nora, like Lillian, would stand out from the crowd. I love what this says about Nick too: he chose love over social convention. This all supports and deepens the conversation the original story has about family. The Thin Man is funny and sexy but underneath every single character is a deep longing to belong. Don't we all?