Sunday, August 24, 2014

Are You Talkin' To Me?

One of the skills many actors develop is the ability to impersonate popular personalities (proving the old adage that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery). Whether mimicking famous celebrities or cartoon characters, a talent for voices demonstrates the added value of an actor's sharp ear combined with an uncanny ability to improvise on a moment's notice.

The late Robin Williams was a master of vocal shapeshifting, capable of popping in and out of various personas with split-second timing. Others have performed such tricks with equally remarkable skill. Consider the eerie talents of Kevin Spacey and Seth MacFarlane.

Two productions new to the Bay area rely on actors impersonating other celebrities. One features two famous British actors who are well-known for their impressions of other stars. The other offers a beloved performer (on stage and screen) impersonating an actor who is himself impersonating "the greatest star" -- but with an exquisitely specific and fascinating qualifier.

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Let's start with the Brits. In 2010, Michael Winterbottom directed a comedy series for the BBC that starred Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in which each actor played a somewhat idealized version of himself. Many of their conversations throughout the series featured the two men trying to amuse themselves (and occasionally each other) with impersonations of such renowned actors as Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Al Pacino, Woody Allen, Dustin Hoffman, and Anthony Hopkins,

The BBC series was so successful that much of the material was repurposed for a full-length feature film entitled The Trip (which I had the pleasure of watching during the 2011 San Francisco International Film Festival). In my review, I noted that:
"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). It is 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. 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. 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."

Rarely is one's wish granted with such grace, wit, and generous accommodation. The BBC did so well with its first series that a  sequel was filmed entitled The Trip to Italy. As with the first series, the sequel was edited down to a full-length feature film of the same name. Filled with many of the same actor's tricks and crammed into a smaller car, Coogan and Brydon hit the road again albeit a little older and more self-conscious about their mortality.

In both series, Winterbottom has devised the structural elements of the narrative (where the actors go, who they meet, at what restaurants they dine, etc). For The Trip to Italy, he decided that his comedic duo should try to follow in the footsteps of two of England's greatest Romantic poets (Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley). As Rob Brydon explains:
"Michael is very much the author of the piece. He takes it away and he molds it. It’s as if he has all this raw material, then he goes off with it and he makes something. The Trip is essentially two middle-aged men bickering, which is kind of universal. It's also concerned with aging and the passing of time (which are universal themes). For me, because we’re improvising, it’s a wonderfully, purely creative experience -- making stuff up on the hoof on location. It’s a very interesting way to work because you’re using yourself. Sometimes it’s completely me and then, at other times it will be a perversion, an exaggeration, a warping just to serve the comedic or dramatic dynamic. You don’t get to do that very often.

We’ll have a scene in which we’ll sit at the table and the script document will say 'Rob and Steve talk about aging' and we’ll just go off and start improvising. Sometimes great stuff comes quickly; sometimes it doesn’t. You’ll often remember things working wonderfully well on the day and then sometimes, you watch them back, and they weren’t as good as you remember. The opposite is true, too. There will be stuff that you thought was pretty pedestrian but, in fact, it flies."

Because of Winterbottom's superb editing, the final product is the kind of guilty pleasure one rarely finds these days: a road trip film filled with witty banter between two men of above-average intelligence, a sense of their diminishing sexual appeal, and a growing awareness that a younger, more energetic generation will soon eclipse them in both their professional and personal lives. The Trip to Italy is the kind of experience where the smartest thing a viewer can do is just sit back, enjoy the ride, and be grateful for a chance to take his mind off the weightier crises plaguing our world. Here's the trailer:

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It's a rare evening indeed when I leave a theatre torn between my admiration for the work I've just witnessed by a gifted playwright, a meticulously insightful stage director, and a performer whose mercurial personality and chameleonic acting skills allow him to create comic dialogues between headstrong personalities with laser-like accuracy.

Taking to heart Muhammad Ali's advice to "float like a butterfly and sting like a bee," Jonathan Tolins was inspired to write Buyer and Cellar by the 2010 publication of Barbra Streisand's coffee table book entitled My Passion For Design (for which the legendary entertainer also acted as photographer). His challenge was to find a structure which would allow audiences -- who frequently refer to Streisand with such pet names as "Babs" or "Miss Marmelstein" -- to get a true sense of what becomes a legend most.

Michael Urie in Buyer and Cellar (Photo by: Joan Marcus) 

Tolins starts off his play by having an actor enter from the wings with a copy of Streisand's book in his hands. As he sits on the stage floor and introduces himself to the audience as Alex More (an aspiring actor who thinks he might be a very distant relative of England's Sir Thomas More), he takes great care to remind the audience that the only thing they will see onstage that is real is his copy of Streisand's book.
  • All of the dialogue they will hear is imaginary and scripted.
  • With so many male and female entertainers performing imitations of Streisand, he will not "do" her.
  • While the audience may assume anything they want (many fans have acquired an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Streisand), the disclaimer is necessary because a certain someone has developed a reputation as one of the most litigious entertainers in history.
Ken Fallin's drawing of Michael Urie in Buyer and Cellar

With that particular piece of business out of the way, Alex starts to describe his misadventures in Disneyland (or "Mauschwitz"), his problems with his boyfriend Barry, and how he ended up working in the basement of Streisand's Malibu estate, where she had built a miniature shopping mall to house her treasure trove of antique dolls, costumes, and other items acquired over decades of shopping and collecting (with a healthy bit of haggling thrown in to keep in touch with her Brooklyn roots).

The writing -- in which Tolins captures the isolation and continued insecurities of a woman who has acquired international fame, exceptional wealth, and a life filled with notoriety (including an impressive string of high-profile lovers) -- also reveals fragile memories of the happiness Streisand once got from a doll made out of a hot water bottle. When Alex's fan mentality starts feeding the legend's fantasies with talk of doing Gypsy on Broadway despite the fact that Streisand would be seen as a 70-year-old mother with a five-year-old child, he is quickly brought down to earth with the star's observation that eight shows a week would be too much to handle for someone with stage fright who is very wary of crowds ("I can barely stand to get close to the 405 [freeway]!").

Michael Urie in Buyer and Cellar (Photo by: Joan Marcus)

This is where the work of a gifted stage director comes into play. Faced with the challenge of not having his actor imitate Streisand's voice, Stephen Brackett (who did such beautifully sensitive work in the recent world premiere production of The Great Pretender at TheatreWorks) has chosen to use just a few trademark gestures from Streisand's many affectations. These instantly register with the audience while, for the rest of the evening, Alex makes hay by mimicking the body language of a manipulative old Jewish woman who still has a few tricks up her sleeve (including a most impressive coupon).

The result is astonishingly effective in allowing the audience to add their own knowledge of Streisand trivia to the impact of Michael Urie's high spirited, deliciously incredulous, and acutely vulnerable characterization of Alex (for which he received the Drama Desk Award, the Clarence Derwent Award, the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Solo Show, and nominations for the Drama League and Outer Critics Circle Awards). I have always admired Urie's work in film and television but, after seeing him perform onstage as a master storyteller (sharing nearly 100 minutes of fabulous material with his audience), my admiration for this talented artist continues to grow.

How well a one-man show like Buyer and Cellar will fare in theatres of different sizes is always a curious question for me. The show premiered off Broadway at the 104-seat Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre and transferred to the 199-seat Barrow Street Theatre. Urie is currently on tour with the show, performing in such venues as Chicago's 549-seat Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, the 739-seat Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, San Francisco's 1,667-seat Curran Theatre, the 750-seat Dallas City Performance Hall, and Toronto's 700-seat Panasonic Theatre.

One can only hope that at some point in Urie's impressive run of performances as Alex More, his performance has been digitally captured for posterity. The following promotional footage from Buyer and Cellar offers a mere hint of the play's comic riches.

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