Sunday, June 26, 2011

For The Sheer Pleasure of Their Company

Most friendships are based on shared interests. Whether it's a love of opera, bird watching, or maritime history, the peculiar passions one shares with others usually provide the glue with which to build a broader, deeper friendship. But not always.

Several years ago I encountered a man with similar artistic interests who was at many of the performances I attended. Having once locked horns with him in a seminar about how gay men dealt with the aging process, I had no desire to pursue a deeper friendship. In discussing the situation with a friend I finally came to the conclusion that the real problem I had with Mr. X was that I received absolutely no pleasure from being in his presence.

Unfortunately, some people have a vampiric talent for draining the energy from a room. The key to dealing with such people is to simply accept the fact that if there is someone whose company you don't enjoy, you don't have to spend time with them just for the sake of being nice. It's okay to take a pass.

Conversely, when you come across people whose intelligence, wit, and quirky charm are irresistible, they offer a stiff reminder of what's been missing from your life. Time spent in their presence only keeps you wanting more.

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As I travel around San Francisco on public transportation (or even while I'm walking down the street), I'm often amused by how many people are dependent upon electronic devices to keep themselves entertained. There's already too much music going on in my head to need ear buds and people watching is a constant source of free drama (especially if you ride the #14 Mission bus).

What would happen if all the electronic devices these people now rely on were suddenly disabled or confiscated. What could they do to amuse themselves?

For a glorious example of the resourcefulness of the human mind, I recommend a viewing of The Trip, which started off as a BBC sitcom and was rapidly recycled into a feature film. Partially improvised, the film stars actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon playing onscreen versions of themselves under the direction of Michael Winterbottom.

Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan in The Trip

It would be criminally wrong to suggest that this film is simply another road trip movie. Why? Because it's filled with moments in which its two stars dig into their professional tool boxes of gags, twitches, impersonations, vocal tricks, and improvisational skills to help pass the time as they travel around Northern England. The following poster is one of the ads selected for the film's marketing campaign:

Poster art for The Trip

The catch is simple. Steve has landed a writing gig from The Observer to review 10 top-level restaurants outside of London. It's not because he's a brilliant food critic. His original plan was to take his American girlfriend, Mischa (who considers herself to be a serious foodie), along on the trip to impress her.

Mischa, however, wants some alone time in their relationship and has returned to America. After several other friends (who are probably smart enough to avoid 10 days in the company of such an extremely lonely fussbudget) decline Steve's offer to accompany him on his wildly indulgent haute cuisine spree, he calls on Rob, a former colleague. If the following "alternative" poster for the film resembles the ancient Greek gods of comedy and tragedy, it perfectly captures the difference in the two men's personalities.
  • Steve lives alone in a London apartment, doesn't get along particularly well with his estranged son, and has a tendency toward loneliness and depression. He's also waiting to hear from his Hollywood agent about the possibility of being cast in a new television series, which would mean spending the next seven years in Los Angeles.
  • Rob is an emotionally secure actor with a fulfilling family life who is surprisingly content with his status quo. A Welshman with a exceptional talent for accents, he doesn't need the kind of constant ego stroking that Steve (like many insecure actors) so desperately craves.
A poster for The Trip that mimics the ancient gods of comedy and tragedy

This is not the kind of road trip where conversation dies off quickly. Both men are skilled and highly competitive actors with lots of trivia and tricks to keep their minds busy (not to mention an encyclopedic knowledge of film). Watch the following clips and marvel at their dexterity.

In between all of the bickering and vocal impressions, Winterbottom keeps the foodies in the audience roundly entertained with his footage of food preparation, presentation, and the combination of high art and pretentiousness that can accompany fine dining.

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip

While the course of the movie is easily dictated by the number of restaurants to be visited, Winterbottom takes his stars on several amusing side trips (including a visit to Coogan's parents). In two remarkable sequences, Winterbottom positions Coogan as a man who is desperately seeking a moment of peace and solace (only to have it ruined by a hiker who won't shut up) and, conversely, as a man who is incapable of letting someone else enjoy a moment of solitude.

The Trip is a deceptively shrewd film that captures a rare kind of intellectual intimacy as well as the aching loneliness of an insecure actor. It's one of the few films that I've wanted to see again as soon as the final credits started to roll.  Here's the trailer:

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Down in Mountain ViewTheatreWorks recently offered the regional premiere of the delightful [title of show]. Whereas Rodgers and Hart's 1937 hit, Babes in Arms, started the trend of musicals in which a group of gung-ho kids get together to put on a show (whether for a good cause or merely to satisfy their own needs), Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen's smartly written show instead chronicles the birth of [title of show]'s concept and the various stops they took along the road to its Broadway premiere.

[title of show] begins when two gay men decide to write a musical. In order to keep themselves creating (and avoid "procrastibating"), Hunter and Jeff use the deadline for submitting a new piece to the 2004 New York Musical Theatre Festival as their motivation. Along the way, they get help from their two friends, Heidi Blickenstaff and Susan Blackwell.

As part of their creative process, the original team also started a popular video blog entitled The [title of show] Show. In the following clip, they indulge their fantasies about who should take over their roles in subsequent productions (be sure to watch for a hilarious cameo appearance at the very end of the clip):

While the four actors appeared in the show's off-Broadway run at the Vineyard Theatre and its on-Broadway run at the Lyceum Theatre, regional productions have started to sprout up with new actors in the cast. As directed by Meredith McDonough, the TheatreWorks cast included Ian Leonard as Jeff, Jamison Stern (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Jason Bateman) as Hunter, Laura Jordan as Susan, and the vocally gifted Farah Alvin as Heidi (it's rare to hear a young voice so beautifully placed, supported, and focused with laser-like precision). William Liberatore (the company's musical director) took on the role of "sometimes Larry" (the onstage accompanist).

Hunter (Jamison Stern), Heidi (Farah Alvin), Jeff (Ian Leonard) and
Susan (Laura Jordan) in [Title of Show] (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

While [title of show] is created by, aimed at, and often panders to musical theatre geeks, the song about Jeff's collection of Playbills brought back some unexpected memories for me. (Not only had I seen Barbara Cook appear onstage in a bikini in 1964's Something More!, I had forgotten how Broadway producers often used a blurry shot of midtown traffic for the cover of their show's Playbills).

Jeff (Ian Leonard) and Hunter (Jamison Stern) in [Title of Show]
Photo by: Mark Kitaoka

[title of show] is filled with a sense of gay humor as well as a perverse delight in its self-referencing moments. Ultimately, however, what really sells the show is the charm of its four-member ensemble (who seduce and win over their audience with an effectiveness that completely eludes Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City). Even though the TheatreWorks production concluded its run this weekend, I hope to see another production of [title of show] at some point in the future. In the meantime, enjoy this special Christmas edition of The [title of show] Show:

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