The peril in staging sordid subject matter is turning out a production that itself is sleaze. But in the West Coast debut of "Partners" at the Night Flight Theatre (not to be confused with the musical of the same title playing at the Matrix Theatre), the creators handle squalor like precious metal: They take an obscenely common underworld drug story and transform it into a theatrical diamond.
The one-act shares a bill with an another one-act ("Airgood") about a '40s gumshoe inspired by Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe.
The plays are sandwiched under the apt cover of "Iron City" (for Pittsburgh, Pa.) and earmark a promising writer, David Higgins. He's a steel-town playwright who evidences a relish for crackling dialogue, dank hotel rooms and two-bit people.
The evening's salad is the opening one-act, playwright Higgins' nod of the fedora to Philip Marlowe. Actor Todd Starks is engaging and stiletto-tongued as the title dick named Airgood, a smear specialist working a statutory rape case.
Staged for the first time, it's a stylish and loving 1947 Hollywood confection with salty, vivid support (particularly from Fran Montano's brash attorney). Director Richard Holden unfurls staccato events with period charm. But it doesn't prepare you for the meat and potatoes to follow.
"Partners," impressively directed by Robert Fiveson, grows with the ugliness of a boil. Reminiscent of David Mamet's "American Buffalo" and simmered with a touch of Hemingway's "The Killers," the play uncoils genuine humor and pathos from its tawdry denizens.
A red light flashes on and off outside a hotel window. A shirtless, scraggly, wooden-legged character (Scott Allan Campbell) chain-smokes, slugs down shots of booze and welcomes two long-lost druggie friends who, we discover, have come to kill him for betraying their boss. As the reluctant thugs, Ben Daidone's open-faced ordinariness and Nathan LeGrand's guarded cobra of a figure are consummately human counterpoints to Campbell's unexpectedly brainy jungle danger. The ensemble work is artful.
Pittsburgh's Edison Hotel (circa 1981) is rendered truly trashy by production set designer David Haber. Sharp costumes are by designer Shirley Thompson.
Other support, ranging across both plays, comes from Al Bloomfield, Alex Statler, Minda Burr and David T. Hayman. The work represents a big step up for Burbank's Night Flight resident Alliance Repertory Company.
Performances at 226 N. Golden Mall, Burbank, run Thursdays through Sundays, 8 p.m., until May 3; (818) 845-4640.