S 'n' S takes audiences to a City of Angels

“Only the floor kept her legs from going on forever.”

Maybe you should try using something like that at your next party — it worked as one of the fabulously over-the-top one-liners from Scotch ’n’ Soda’s performance of City of Angels, after all. Throughout the show, 1940s private eye Stone utters such conversational gems in seemingly endless amounts, and they’re probably the only thing keeping him sane. Stone, played by senior mechanical engineer Connor O’Malley, has a lot on his plate. Throughout the story, he’s busy locating an MIA stepdaughter, refuting a murder accusation, and fending off some femmes fatales, among other things.

Sound like a crazy plot? That’s only half of it. Turns out Stone is merely the literary invention of Stine, a novelist-turned-screenwriter who finds himself more than a little in over his head in Hollywood. City of Angels bounces between Stone’s misadventures in sleuthery and Stine’s real-life drama. Stine, played by senior piano and German major Sam McUmber, is struggling to please his wife, his producer, and himself as he adapts his crime novel to fit the silver screen.

The story begins with a scene in Stone’s office. Enter the charming and mysterious Alaura Kingsley (senior Alex Aspiazu, an ethics, history, and public policy major). Almost immediately, we find out there’s something not quite right about her. Stone points out that he can tell from her tan line that she’s usually in the habit of wearing a wedding ring. Guilty as suspected, Alaura removes a ring from her handbag and reluctantly places it back on her finger.

Despite the duplicity, Stone is persuaded to take Mrs. Kingsley’s case when she offers him $100 upfront to find the missing Mallory. Mrs. Kingsley leaves Stone with a photograph of Mallory as his only guide. Intrigue ensues.

The second strike against Alaura Kingsley comes in the form of, well, a strike. Two classic thugs arrive at Stone’s place to literally knock some sense into him. They attempt to convince Stone to drop the case, but their success in the matter is rather irrelevant, as a few nights later Stone enters his apartment to find Mallory Kingsley lying scantily clad on his bed.

It’s every Carnegie Mellon student’s dream: a beautiful girl materializing atop your sheets. For Stone, however, the visit quickly turns sour. Mallory (Julia Brown, a sophomore English major) arranges herself so that she and Stone are in a rather compromising position, and just then her brother Peter (played by Dan Tasse, a sophomore computer science major) dashes through the scene, with enough dexterity to take a photograph.

See, Alaura’s husband Luther (Alex DiClaudio, a first-year economics major) is an unfortunate sufferer of infantile paralysis. He’s also 75 and extremely wealthy. The Kingsleys are trying to frame Stone for the murder of his therapist, Dr. Mandril (Tyson Schrader, a senior English and creative writing major). On top of that, Mrs. Kingsley aims to poison her husband and swindle her stepchildren out of their shares of the inheritance. Stone learns of Alaura’s involvement in a similar scam involving a similarly old and rich husband from her earlier life in West Virginia. In the end, Stone is able to prevent Mrs. Kingsley from executing her wretched plans, but it costs him his life.

That’s an abbreviated version of Stone’s half of City of Angels. Clearly, this isn’t so much a whodunit as it is a what-the-hell-is-going-on. Meanwhile, Stine’s world is no picnic, either.

He’s faced with the age-old Hollywood dilemma of how to maintain your integrity and still “make it.” His wife Gabbi (played by Rachel Gross, a senior in business administration) loves him so much that it disgusts her to watch him sell out to the industry. On the other hand, his producer Buddy Fidler (senior Brian Gray, an information systems major) is the epitome of everything loathesome about Hollywood. He demands constant rewrites, insisting that Stine cut out the element of racism in the script and change the ending so that Peter doesn’t kill Mallory.

Eventually, enough is enough. The border between the reel and the real, which was blurry to begin with, is obliterated as Stone confronts his creator on the subject of his waning scruples. Unmistakably each other’s alter egos, Stone and Stine have a very complicated relationship. At the close of the first act, they sing the bitter “You’re Nothing Without Me,” which captures the paradox of a writer at odds with his fiction. Stine recites the clever quip “I tell you you’re out of my mind,” to which Stone later replies, “Hey, I’m a famous shamus/And most people don’t know your name.” At the song’s end, Stine takes some writerly revenge, changing a scene so that Stone gets beat up again, this time by the character of Munoz (Caulder Temple, a first-year creative writing major).

But all is not lost: The tune of “You’re Nothing Without Me” is revived in the final scene as a reworded “I’m Nothing Without You.” With Stone by his side in an imaginary friend sort of way, Stine storms the set where his screenplay is being filmed and tells Buddy Fidler it’s over. Nobody was more surprised than me when such a crazy show fell into the Hollywood cliché of a happy ending. But it’s all good; after all that, Stone and Stine deserved a healthy dose of closure.

One of the reasons it’s important to have an appreciation for the complexity of the plot of City of Angels is that it explains what a huge undertaking it was for the Scotch ’n’ Soda Theatre to perform it. “There’s been a lot of work put into this show,” said president Courtney Kochuba, a junior creative writing major. And she wasn’t exaggerating; City of Angels required a massive effort, both theatrically and technically.

After The Laramie Project, it was nice to see Scotch ’n’ Soda performing in a bigger space, and it was also entirely necessary. The stage, located in Rangos, was justifiably extensive. In the back were all the characters involved in the Stone saga. Then, off to the side was a desk where Stine sometimes sat to type a scene as it was happening. On the other side stood the Angel City Four (first-year design major Andrea Barber, first-year economics major Alex DiClaudio, first-year mechanical engineer Erica Dorfman, and junior English major Danielle Griswold), who sang several tunes throughout the show. And in the front there was a separate stage area where the real-life half of the story unfolded. Somewhere in the midst of all of that was the pit, whose players did an excellent job of providing 1940s-style jazz, much to the benefit of the atmosphere.

As for the cast, by now they must be exhausted. “Everybody doubles,” said Kochuba. And nearly all of them did; the script has seven mirroring roles. Many of the leads were taken by seniors, for whom City of Angels was the final Scotch ’n’ Soda performance. If they meant to go out on top, they did. Rachel Gross was fantastic as Gabbi (Stine’s wife) and Bobbi (Stone’s girl). In particular, she did an excellent job with the song “It Needs Work,” in which Gabbi is resentfully criticizing a letter from her husband as if it is a work of fiction. Probably the funniest of the performers, Brian Gray was able to provide an ideal portrayal of an immoral Hollywood director. Alex Aspiazu was a terrific Alaura Kingsley, especially during her duet with Connor O’Malley acting as Stone for “Double Talk.” The song was littered with tennis metaphors, Aspiazu was dressed in white, and the only things that seemed out of place were her character’s shoes (improper court attire). For that matter, O’Malley’s capacity to pull off all of Stone’s outrageously cheesy one-liners is something to be admired. And it was easy to sympathize with the character of Stine, beautifully played by McUmber. His song “Funny,” when he realizes that a screenwriter’s life is not for him, was very impressive. Senior English major Kaitlin Genovese was both Donna (Buddy’s assistant) and Oolie (Stone’s assistant), and she sang “You Can Always Count On Me” as each of them, both times masterfully.

Even with all the great senior performances, the underclassman portion of the cast was certainly able to hold its own. Also playing a double role, Caulder Temple was both the hilarious cop Munoz and the actor Pancho. Temple managed Munoz’s Latino accent perfectly (even in song); it was comical but not distastefully so. Brown also deserves praise for coolly singing “Lost and Found” in little more than her underwear.

Though the talent was undeniable, City of Angels was an extremely ambitious production and thus not without its imperfections. The most disagreeable part of the show was its length. Over two and half hours is a lot to ask, especially during Carnival weekend. The plot was intricate, but there were many minor scenes that could have been cut. The stage transitions were often tedious, also taking up excessive amounts of time.

This year, Scotch ’n’ Soda was, undeniably, a valuable part of Carnival. According to Kochuba, the selection of City of Angels had nothing to do with the theme of “Another Time and Place.” But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a perfect fit. As the actors moved about the various realms of the stage, taking the audience from the real to the imaginary, it was clear that last weekend Midway wasn’t the only place to find yourself transported. Traveling via booth is all well and good, but amid the chaos of Carnival, it was nice to sit back and let the cast of Scotch ’n’ Soda do most of the work.