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Divine comedy in 'City of Angels' at Theatre III in Acton

Margaret Smith

It’s often said that fiction writers strike a bargain with the characters and worlds they create.

Making people and places that don’t exist believable might pull the writer in, causing daily chores – and personal relationships with real-life people -- to slip away.

At some point, the writer may find his creations not only distracting but controlling nuisances, like guests who show up uninvited and never leave, and don’t always help pay the bills.

This conflict is at the heart of “City of Angels” -- on stage at Theatre III in Acton -- a musical comedy set in the late 1940s, about a mystery novelist whose characters literally take over his life as he pushes to get his vision onto the silver screen.

The play centers around the writer, Stine, struggling to eke a screenplay out of his latest book for a film mogul who keeps interjecting rewrites, each one more outrageous than the next.

Although Stine is mostly a sympathetic character, he’s a fallible one. His infidelities prompt his wife, Gabby, to leave him to go to New York.

Meanwhile, Stine’s fictional alter ego, a stock character detective named Stone, gets mixed up in the travails of an attractive socialite married to a polio-stricken millionaire confined to an iron lung. To add to his romantic troubles, a young woman prone to reckless behavior shows up one day in the bed of Stone’s shabby apartment.

Along the way are an assortment of noir archetypes,  ncluding hoods sent to give Stone a sound beating, an ambitious singer who breaks hearts in her pursuit of fame, a police officer of Hispanic descent who complains about stereotypes, and a gleeful assortment of shallow party goers and femmes fatale.

The play unfolds in parallel universes of Stine’s day-to-day frustrations and Stone’s murky adventures, weaving back and forth between them in a way that is surreal and poignant.

Throughout, a jazz quartet serves as a Greek chorus, showing up to blurt out warnings, prophecies, and wry observations -- sometimes for the protagonists’ benefit, and other times or their own amusement.

One of the funniest and most moving moments is when the “real life” Stine and his fictitious alter ego Stone erupt in a singing/shouting match about who controls who, and who owes who more for their very existence.

Written by Larry Gelbart, the creator of the TV series, “M*A*S*H,” “City of Angels” features music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by David Zipple.

The Theatre III production is directed by Tom Wachtell, with music direction by Cindi Silverman and Susie Allen, and choreography by Christine Campbell.

If you go

‘City of Angels’

Where Theatre III, 250 Central St., Acton

When Friday and Saturday, Nov. 13 and 14, 20 and 21, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 15, 3 p.m.

Cost Tickets $21 adults, $18 seniors and students

For more information visit theatre3.org or call 978-263-9070.

Margaret Smith is Arts and Calendar editor at GateHouse Media New England’s Northwest Unit. E-mail her at msmith@cnc.com.