Theater Review: Zombie Joe's Underground Presents 'Absolute Black'

"Solving crime is like an art. And baby, I'm Van Gogh," says the cocksure private dick portrayed by Willy Romano-Pugh in the original new film noir play Absolute Black at Zombie Joe's Underground in North Hollywood.

The spirited, tongue-in-cheek trip down nostalgia lane is an original work from writer/director Vanessa Cate, who appears to have had just as much fun concocting the playful homage as audiences are likely to have watching it. The tale never approaches anything resembling subtlety in its playful ribbing of noir detective flicks and cinema's golden age, but that's exactly what makes the spectacle such a joy from start to finish. And even with all the cheekiness at hand, it's clear that Cate and her cast possess an affinity for the world they are making a mockery of.

*All Photos by Vanessa Cate

We open with Hollywood starlet-on-the-rise, Mabel Lindbrook (Melissa Gentry), out on a double date with her sweet, naive beau Frank (Kelby Cross), her best friend Minnie (Carolyn Hayver) and bad boy Jack (Kyle Devero). In one of the play's many clever moments, the foursome look to the back of the theater where a panel in the wall comes open to reveal movie stars Harvey Milestone (Jeff Cowan) and Verna Meyers (Irina Costa) in pasty makeup as they act out the final moments of their latest picture. After the play, Mabel speaks of her aspirations to appear on the big screen herself "some day."

From here, Black flashes forward to "some day," Mini's big break, which turns out to be her last. On the opening night of her big screen breakout opposite Harvey Milestone, Mabel turns up dead, our unnamed detective showing up at the scene of the crime to find Frank weeping over her fresh corpse. Also on the scene are a Laurel and Hardy-like detective team, Lt. Briggs (Tyler McAuliffe) and Officer Campbell (Andrew Hansen), the former channeling Jackie Gleason with his hot-headed, reactionary and rarely correct conclusions while the latter stares on as the unfortunate straight man.

The whodunnit that follows turns everyone into a suspect and, while most are eventually cleared of the dirtiest deed, no one (well, almost no one) walks away with clean hands. Cate ups the ante from the usual noir whodunnit to daytime soap territory - extramarital affairs, betrayals, murder and downright nastiness are uncovered at every corner by our private eye host. With a group of friends like these, what kind of chance could poor Mabel have had anyway? Of course, even she's not as squeaky clean as she first appears. I won't give away any more, except to say that the true fun comes from the journey rather than the who of the whodunnit anyway.

Absolute Black's cast is excellent through and through with standouts from Gentry as the ill-fated centerpiece of the show; Hayver as the good-time gal pal and, of course, our never-named private eye from Willy Romano-Pugh, a steadfast tour guide if there ever was one. Kyle Devero's devilish sneer and McAuliffe's spirited comic relief add to the enjoyable concoction.

As with all the shows at Zombie Joe's Underground, theater newbies need not fear. Far from stuffy and brisk to boot, Absolute Black packs plenty of fun (and yes, even some bloodshed) into 60 minutes, happily wallowing in its cliche-ridden narrative like a pig in, well, you know. In the theatrical wasteland of January and February, Zombie Joe serves up a welcome alternative within its dark and cozy confines.

Absolute Black continues at Zombie Joe's Underground Friday's at 8:30 p.m. through February 11th, 2012.