Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Acting Out

One of the challenges facing any actor is to develop his instrument to the point where he can have enough confidence in his craft to become a chameleon capable of switching between characters with lightning speed, modulating his voice, or changing his body language with a deftness that defies disbelief. For those who are gifted mimics, this part of acting may be easy. But for those who try to create more carefully-layered characterizations -- or who have a more nuanced and introspective work process -- it is the challenge of a lifetime.

This week Chazz Palminteri brought his acclaimed play, A Bronx Tale, to the Golden Gate Theater (quickly and easily erasing my fears that a one-man show might get lost on its stage). Originally created in 1989 when, after being fired from his job as a nightclub bouncer, a broke Palminteri remembered his father's advice that the saddest thing in life is wasted talent, A Bronx Tale was eventually adapted for the silver screen.  

Several years ago, when I saw the film version of A Bronx Tale, I felt something odd about it. After seeing Palminteri's one-man show live onstage, I know what was bothering me.  For all the powerful moments in the film version, this show is really about the power of storytelling. Whether Palminteri is impersonating a street thug delivering advice on how to make sure a potential girlfriend can be trusted (or excitedly reliving his thoughts as an impressionable nine year old sitting on the front stoop of his building watching the neighborhood capo in action), Palminteri's dramatic strength rings true.

Although he has been working with this material for nearly 20 years, Palminteri's performance is remarkable for its freshness. A member of the Actors Studio with more than 50 movie credits to his name, the creator of A Bronx Tale is ably supported by James Noone's simple yet evocative three-piece set and guided with loving hands by director Jerry Zaks as he relives his journey from adolescence to manhood at the corner of Belmont Avenue and E. 187th Street.

Palminteri's work onstage offers a model lesson for aspiring actors in how to pace yourself through an evening when you're out there alone, with no one else to fall back on.  A Bronx Tale simultaneously  offers audiences an hour and a half with a gifted writer and a veteran actor.  

As a performance piece, Palminteri's play is a class act from start to finish.

* * * * * *

Coming up for release is a fascinating film written and directed by Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation) with a crackerjack cast headed by one of America's greatest actors: Philip Seymour Hoffman.  If linear thinking or an action adventure film is your cup of tea, you can stop reading right now.  Synecdoche, New York is best appreciated by people who close their eyes hoping to get some sleep and end up living through 3-4 Fellini epics before they regain consciousness.  

A film that is laugh-out-loud funny in unexpected moments and tears your heart to pieces in others, Synecodoche, New York is a rare cinematic achievement: a complex film that makes audiences question their own mortality, the choices they make in life, and whether the very moment they are experiencing is real.  Guaranteed to scare the bejusus out of any hypochondriac,  Kaufman's latest effort makes Rod Serling's Twilight Zone seem like child's play.

The bare bones of the plot are as follows:    Caden Cotard (Hoffman) is a mediocre stage director at a regional theater company in upstate New York.  As various fungal ailments start to take over his organs and nervous system, his wife takes their daughter to Germany with her, where she has a rendezvous with her lesbian lover (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who decides to tattoo the child's body as an artistic statement and feed her tall tales about her father being a homosexual who doesn't love her.

Meanwhile, Cotard wins a prestigious MacArthur "genius grant" and goes about constructing the largest ongoing theater project in history (Orson Welles and John Houseman would be green with envy).  As the people in his real life become characters in the variety of dramatic scenes being enacted in this staged project, the boundaries between truth and fiction quickly become blurred.

As he ages, Cotard tries to connect with his dying daughter in Germany, ruins most of his ongoing relationships with crazy women, and does a pretty thorough job of fucking up everything until a strangely self-assured actress named Millicent Weems (the great Diane Wiest) takes over control of his real and imagined lives, bringing closure to Kaufman's film.

The great supporting cast includes Samantha Morton as Hazal, Catherine Keener as Adele, Emily Watson as Tammy, and Michelle Williams as Claire.  I particularly liked Hope Davis as Cotard's self-serving psychologist,  Dr. Madeleine Gravis, and Tom Noonan as Sammy Barnathan (the actor who stalks and ends up portraying Caden Cotard in his theatrical parallel universe).

If you liked Barton Fink you will love Kaufman's film, which creates a hazy world of actors struggling for motivation in which no one questions why a woman's home is always on fire, why a strange woman in an apartment hallway is offering you a key, or why your stool is green.  If your dreams are filled with visits from past acquaintances who have ghostly unfinished business, want to renegotiate bad relationships, or are struggling to make something right, you will feel right at home watching Synecdoche, New York.

If you have those kinds of nightmares on a regular basis, this film is for you. Don't even bother pinching yourself to see if you're dreaming. You've vaunted way past the Twilight Zone and are now a captive of Charlie Kaufman's feverishly hyperactive imagination.  Here's the trailer:

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