A gumshoe stumbles onto the ultimate double-cross in "A Killer Story."

Dan Harder's new hard-boiled mystery is a cheeky mash-up of film noir tropes and 21st-century evils. The hero of the story, a private eye named Rick, may talk like Sam Spade but the issues he confronts, the possibility of altering genes with brain chips, comes straight out of the digital age.

Savvily directed by Michelle Haner, this 90-minute homage to pulp fiction runs through May 18 in its world premiere at the Marsh Berkeley. If the narrative has its clumsy patches and the play never quite makes the leap from spine-tingling to existential, it's still a witty romp through the timeless terrain of trench coats and terror, fedoras and fear. Retro "killer" cocktails served at the venue, such as the Arsenic and Old Lace and the Cat's Meow, and a cozy cabaret setting help set the mood for 90 minutes of smoking guns, sultry dames and ulterior motives.

Private detective Rick (Ryan O’Donnell, left) is searching for a missing scientist,and the scientist’s wife, Lara (Madeline H.D. Brown, right)
Private detective Rick (Ryan O'Donnell, left) is searching for a missing scientist, and the scientist's wife, Lara (Madeline H.D. Brown, right) is a primary suspect in A KILLER STORY, playing at The Marsh Berkeley April 12 through May 18, 2013. Photo: David Allen ( David Allen )

Rick (Ryan O'Donnell) is an old-school private dick with a tough skin and smart mouth. He lives in the here and now but he still sports a cheap suit and a cocked fedora. He hounds witnesses and scribbles notes like a wannabe Columbo and he never doubts that he can crack the case. Until She walks in.

A stunning blonde with a missing husband, Laura (Madeline H.D. Brown) hires Rick to find her spouse Praveen. He's a genius scientist on the brink of revolutionizing artificial intelligence. Or he was. She doesn't know if he's alive or dead, she says. She only knows he left her all alone in her multimillion dollar manse high in the Berkeley hills. It's a heavenly spot, far from the fray, where you can watch "sailboat clouds race overhead." She's also got "a smile like a third glass of booze," so there's no way Rick can turn her down.

Alas, soon the gun-for-hire is mired in lies, lust and greed. He knows he can't rely on Laura but he also can't trust Praveen's partner Jerry (the redoubtable Robert Parsons). Jerry is also a brilliant scientist but he was often eclipsed by Praveen and he's got some racist tendencies to boot. He's resentful that an Indian immigrant upstaged him on his own turf.

Perhaps he offed his partner to get all the glory for their breakthrough? Or maybe Praveen's wife indulged in a little murder, my sweet, because she got jealous? Maybe the two of them are in cahoots over this sordid bit of business. Doubt swallows them all whole.

Erich Blazeski's lights slyly thrust these three lost souls against a sea of shadows. Randy Craig's haunting score pricks in their ears until they prowl the stark black-and-white set like caged tigers.

Haner's artfully-crafted moody minimalism showcases electric performances by Brown and Parsons. Brown, so ferocious in "Woyzeck" at Shotgun, gets deep inside the femme fatale archetype to find its heat and truth. Parsons lends Jerry a disturbing intensity that makes you wish that character were far more central to the plot. You may never understand the science he babbles, but you know he's a man on the edge.

The weakest link in this love triangle is O'Donnell, who nails the swagger of the Bogart era but does little to flesh out the psychology of the detective. We never get a sense of whether he enjoys the chase or if he's just killing time until the next trip to the morgue. If O'Donnell's Rick were less stiff, the play's the kiss me deadly vibe would be more intoxicating.

Fortunately there's enough zing in this post-modern noir to keep the audience guessing right up until the last bang in the whodunit. Harder never truly grapples with the scientific and cultural quandaries he bandies about and some of the text is overwritten. But he's got an ear for period language that just won't quit. The snappy banter and overlapping dialogue pops like gunfire in "A Killer Story."

Contact Karen D'Souza at 408-271-3772. Read her at www.mercurynews.com/karen-dsouza, follow her at Twitter.com/KarenDSouza4 and like her at Facebook.com/Dsouzatheaterpage

'A Killer Story'

Written by Dan Harder

Through: May 18
Where: The Marsh, 2120 Allston Way, Berkeley
Running time: 90 minutes (no intermission)
Tickets: $20-$50 (sliding scale), 415-282-3055, www.themarsh.org