Courtesy PhotoWhodunit? In “A Killer Story” at the Marsh in Berkeley

‘Killer’ snazzy but uneven

Local writer Dan Harder’s modern noir mystery, “A Killer Story,” onstage at the Marsh in Berkeley, starts at the end. All three characters — hard-boiled gumshoe Rick (Ryan O’Donnell), sexy blonde Laura (Madeline H.D. Brown) and obsessive scientist Jerry (Robert Parsons) — are behind bars.

Reverting to the beginning, Rick tells us how they got here. His only mistake, he claims, was in his timing.

At play’s end, awaiting trial, he says he told “too good a story.”

It’s a clever conceit.

Laura’s brilliant Indian husband, Praveen, who is also Jerry’s research partner (the two are developing a form of artificial intelligence, hoping to create a super-smart “new man”) has gone missing. Laura and Jerry, separately, hire the private eye to find him.

Rick thinks Praveen is probably dead. As he plies his clients with nosy personal questions that they try to evade, he realizes that they each have a motive for murdering the missing man.

In noir fashion, the detective narrates throughout, his delivery low-key, his demeanor cynical, his monologue peppered with the corny metaphors and the slick pronouncements common to the genre. “I get paid by the living, but I work for the dead,” he intones.

In lieu of direct interaction among the characters, Harder gives Laura and Jerry a share of the narration. (Jerry describes Rick as “part Socrates, part Sam Spade.”)

At times the presentational device works. At other times, though, lines are pointlessly repetitive or else interwoven awkwardly.

Despite much wit and the excellent acting, my interest in the whodunit began to wane two-thirds of the way in. That’s because, despite Harder’s intriguing proposition that the storyteller can, in insidious ways, drive a story’s outcome, we don’t really see that happening. Although the action unfolds in increments, it fails to build in intensity.

Instead, it plays out on one dramatic level throughout, and we don’t get a true sense of the characters’ emotional arcs. That’s partly due to the writing and partly due to Michelle Haner’s otherwise good directing.

But Harder has interspersed a few provocative themes and ideas along the way. And the production features an appropriately shadowy, nightmarishly tilted set design by Brad Cooreman, Martha Stookey’s fine, quasi-1930s costumes, dramatic lighting by Erich Blazeski, and a wonderfully jazzy score, composed — and played live on piano — by Randy Craig.

Come at 7:15 p.m. for the pre-show cabaret with Craig, chanteuse Allison Lovejoy and a full bar.

If You Go

“A Killer Story”
Presented by the Marsh

Where: 2120 Allston Way, Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; closes May 18
Tickets: $20 to $50
Contact: (415) 282-3055, www.themarsh.org

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