Saturday, April 3, 2010

Carefully Casting Cantankerous Characters

Where does an actor go when he's no longer a brat packer or teen heartthrob? Is there life beyond Harry Potter and the Girls From Tiger Beat magazine? What do you do when you're no longer an ingenue?

In September 1980, when Barbara Cook appeared in concert at Carnegie Hall (in a program entitled "It's Better With A Band"), she sang a patter song written by her friend Wally Harper that mocked the soprano's career in Broadway musicals. Here are David Zippel's brilliant lyrics for "The Ingenue Song":
"For quite some time I've heard that I'm
Alleged to be an ingenue.
And yes, it's true. When I was two
I pledged to be an ingenue.
My agent said before I went to
Do what Doris Day would do
And sign upon the dotted line
If William Morris pay would do.

When I was three, they said to me
The stage would be my medium.
But ingenues must pay their dues
With unrelenting tedium.
We must be sweet or quite discreet
And dress in unappealing clothes.
We may not tease our friends or hair
Or swear or wear revealing clothes.

One has to fear the casting couch.
Producers lust and breed alike,
They letch alike and kvetch alike,
Their hairlines all recede alike.
They scream a lot and scheme a lot
Be calm at first but in averse
Get totally hysterical!

An ingenue must promise to
Imprison her virginity.
All men above the age of ten
Are kept from her vicinity.
A lady's reputation is
Unlikely to improve at all.
A stain on that, no laundromat
Or cleaner can remove at all.

The parts you play most often may
Require you to ham a lot,
And you're inclined to wind up in
A bus and truck of Camelot.
The parts for boys you play against
They bring out all the clones to do
And movie roles you live to play
They give to Shirley Jones to do.

So many shows the actress knows
The critics will attack her in.
It is so hard to live on guard
And stay as sweet as saccharin.
Add up all the pros and cons
You'll end up with a minus score.
And that is why the ingenue
Has died out like the dinosaur!"
At a certain point, any actor worth his salt is going to have to depend on more than good looks and the vagaries of the casting couch. A committed actor, whose professional life may be heavily scheduled, must sometimes relinquish roles he had yearned to play. Others may use the time between film commitments (or long months dedicated to a television series in production) to make limited appearances on the stage.

This much is for sure: No one gets any younger (not even with all the Botox in the world). As a result, many actors start to look for character roles: those intensely memorable portraits which may not carry a movie at the box office, but which remain unforgettable in the minds of the audience. A few shining examples:
Three new productions make superb use of performers who shine in supporting roles. Each production has its share of pleasant surprises. I would happily recommend all three.

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In a series of articles on (Blogging City Island: Filmmaker, Hype Thyself), Raymond DeFelitta has taken a new approach toward promoting his latest film. It's an interesting publicity move which lays bare all the setbacks he faced in funding and casting City Island.

When I saw this endearing film at the 2010 San Francisco Indie Film Fest, I was both surprised and impressed by the script. What could have easily been yet another mediocre movie about a dysfunctional Italian-American family beating up on each other proved to be a genuinely touching story filled with random moments of compassion.

The Rizzo Family of City Island (Steven Strait, Dominik
Garcia-Lorido, Andy Garcia, Juliana Margulies, and Ezra Miller)

Although each key character carries a painful secret that will be unveiled before the end of the film, all of the family sniping is firmly rooted in souls that are desperately hungry for fulfillment and getting nowhere fast. Consider the cast of characters:
  • Vince Rizzo (Andy Garcia) is a corrections officer who realizes that Tony Nardella (one of the tough and heavily tattooed young men in his prison) is the long-lost son he fathered with an old flame prior to marrying his wife. On what Vince claims to be his "poker nights," he has secretly been attending acting classes. One of the acting exercises given to him during class is to reveal his deepest secret -- a move which triggers Vince's decision to have Tony released on probation and assigned to Vince's custody.
  • Michael Malakov (Alan Arkin) is Vince's acting teacher.
  • Molly (Emily Mortimer) is an aspiring actress who befriends Vince and encourages him to audition for a role (which he gets). Miss Molly's got a few secrets of her own.
  • Tony Nardella (Steven Strait) is the angry, hunk that Vince brings into his family home. If Tony's got trouble written all over him, there is a good reason why.
  • Joyce Rizzo (Juliana Margulies) is Vince's hyperemotional Italian wife. Tough and sarcastic, but with a heart of gold, Joyce has long been suspicious that Vince is having an affair. Sneaking cigarettes outside the house, she can't help but notice the animal appeal of the young man Vince has unexpectedly brought home.
Joyce (Juliana Margulies) and Vince (Andy Garcia)
  • Vivian Rizzo (Dominik Garcia-Lorido) is Vince and Joyce's daughter, who is supposed to be away at college on a scholarship. The only problem is that Vivian got booted out of school after she was caught smoking marijuana and, instead of cramming for finals, has been pole dancing in a strip club.
  • Vince, Jr. (Ezra Miller) is Vivian's younger brother, who can't help noticing his sister's newly expanded chest. Vince has a secret fetish: he loves the thought of feeding morbidly obese women. When he discovers a fetish website that stars his 350-pound neighbor, he can barely keep his excitement in check.
  • Denise (Carrie Baker Reynolds) is a huge and happy woman who may be the only character that has nothing to hide. She earns a comfortable living from the fetishists who make "donations" to her website to underwrite her grocery bill. In return, they they get the voyeuristic joy of watching Denise cook and eat.
  • Cheryl (Hope Glendon-Ross) is a classmate of Vince's who has been battling image problems due to her weight. At first, she thinks Vince is making fun of her because she's fat. But after she spies Vince happily shopping for groceries with Denise, Cheryl discovers that it's better to have two friends who have absolutely no objection to her weight than no friends at all.
While there is much to like in City Island, I was especially pleased by the treatment of Denise. Seeing an obese woman with a healthy self image onscreen is almost as refreshing as an out-and-proud gay member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In a film about people who can't stop lying to themselves and their family, Denise stands out as the one character who is completely honest and has no hidden agendas. City Island is worth seeing for her performance alone. Here's the trailer:


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Directed and co-written by Brandon Beckner, Remarkable Power! finds its strength in the tabloid mentality driving Hollywood. Released directly to DVD in February, it surprised me with its solid script, strong production values, and talented cast. Kevin Nealon stars as Jack West -- a late-night talk show host whose career is on the skids, whose wife (Sandra Hess) is having an affair with one of baseball's biggest stars (Johnny Messner), and whose producer (Jordan Belfi) is a total asshole.

Doug Wade (Johnny Messner) and Jack West (Kevin Nealon)

While Jack West plots his revenge on all who have wronged him, a subplot involves a young fool named Ross (Evan Peters) who is new to Los Angeles and has fallen hook, line, and sinker for an infomerical promoting motivational videotapes by JP Zahn (Christopher Titus) that promise to deliver "Remarkable Power" to all who purchase them. While wandering around the boardwalk in Venice, the naive, gullible, and horribly stupid Ross recognizes Preston (Kip Pardue) as the actor who taped a testimonial spot for Remarkable Power.

Nora Zehetner as Athena

When the bitter Preston invites the inquisitive young man back to his apartment, he makes the mistake of telling him what a gullible and stupid fool Ross is, which leads to Preston's untimely and accidental death. What follows is one of the better plotted stories about the Hollywood underworld to be written since Beggars and Choosers (a Showtime series about life in a television network's headquarters). Among the minor characters littering the sidewalks of Hollywood are
  • a personal investigator (Tom Arnold) who likes to think of himself as a licensed professional who has been hired by an insurance company to spy on Preston in order to determine if the actor's neck injury (suffered during an on-set accident in a porn film about King Dong) is genuine.
  • a young woman (Nora Zehetner) who likes to photograph murder scenes and post shots of fresh gore on her website.
  • a Jewish gangster named Moses (Jack Plotnick) who owns a Chicken 'n Waffles franchise that he uses as a front for his drug operation.
  • a pair of police detectives (C. J. Byrnes and Ed Ackerman) disguised as Batman and Robin for a costume party.
  • a black actor (Dulé Hill) who is trapped in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Dulé Hlll and Kip Pardue

Remarkable Power! is notable for (a) what may well be Tom Arnold's most subdued performance, (b) the dramatic strength of performances by some noted stand-up comedians in straight roles, and (c) its surprisingly high production values. I especially liked the performances by Nora Zehetner as Athena and Kip Pardue as Preston. While Remarkable Power! may not win any awards, it's definitely worth renting for an evening's entertainment. Here's the trailer:

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Two-character plays are extremely difficult vehicles to stage. Especially if one of the characters only has twelve lines to speak over the course of two hours. However, as written and directed by Morris Panych, Vigil hits a home run with audiences thanks, in no small part, to the winning performances by veteran actors Marco Baricelli as Kemp and Olympia Dukakis as Grace.

This production, now onstage at American Conservatory Theatre, is framed by Ken MacDonald's delightfully lopsided set (which perfectly captures the selfish loopiness of Panych's script as well as the loneliness of its two horribly mismatched characters). The playwright describes Vigil as follows:
"It is naturalism that explodes onto a large scale. The internal part of Vigil is very naturalistic and then, as it goes out, it becomes more and more absurd. We have to tell the audience that when the lights come up they aren't watching TV. They're watching a real story. They're watching a fable. They are watching something bigger than life. It's supposed to be like a dream or a strange little book you read. It's supposed to take you somewhere outside yourself."
Olympia Dukakis and Marco Baricelli (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Kemp is a middle-aged gay man (carrying more emotional baggage than the Titanic) who leaves his lowly banking job upon receiving word that his aunt Grace (the one he hasn't seen in 30 years) is dying. Having grown up with an abusive, alcoholic mother and a father who committed suicide (after his wife gave Kemp's father a gun as a birthday gift), Kemp has spent most of his lifetime becoming horribly selfish, incredibly rude and insensitive, and increasingly bitter about all of the perceived injustices of his life.

Grace, on the other hand, lives alone and is waiting to die. Dazed, confused, and surrounded by the flotsam and jetsam of her declining days, she doesn't quite know what to do with this rude man who barges into her life, keeps insulting her and trying to find ways to plan her funeral, conspires to electrocute her, and continues to make a fool of himself.

Marco Baricelli and Olympia Dukakis (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Much of Vigil's first act is written as a series of blackout scenes in which Kemp delivers one horribly insensitive zinger after another as the befuddled Grace blankly stares back at him. But as Act II progresses -- and Grace starts to get better -- the two characters reach an uneasy truce.

Manych's play (which has been translated into nearly 20 languages since it premiered in 1995) easily transcends cultural barriers. It deals with the pain of loneliness, the horror of emotional wounds that never heal, the hypersensitivity and raging insecurity of a confused gay man raised by emotional cripples, and the sad confusion of senile dementia.

Olympia Dukakis and Mario Baricelli (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Achingly funny, horridly poignant, beautifully lit, and sprinkled with carefully chosen musical cues, the fact that Vigil has been directed by its playwright gives the performance a special understanding of all the rhythmic beats to Kemp's outbursts (as well as the odd moments of silence when neither character knows what to do with the other). For Dukakis, it is a chance to concentrate on listening and reacting as Baricelli barrels through the script. For the audience, it is an opportunity to laugh, wince, sigh, and wonder if they will ever be unlucky enough to end up in either Kemp's or Grace's miserable shoes.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the role of Kemp is how quickly and easily it makes one think of an actor (Oliver Platt) for whom this character could have been created. While Baricelli does a splendid job bringing Kemp to life, I would be fascinated to see Platt sink his teeth into this role.

Easily one of A.C.T.'s better offerings in recent years, Vigil continues through April 18th. You can order tickets here.

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