Sunday, August 23, 2009

To Flash Or Not To Flash [Back]

There is nothing quite like living in the moment. Whether relishing its joys or hurting from its woes, the fierce urgency of now is what fills our lives with vitality. In this pirated clip from Jerry Herman's 1966 smash hit, Mame, Angela Lansbury exuberantly explains why "life is a banquet and most poor sons of bitches are starving to death."

Sometimes, in order to frame a narrative, a playwright will resort to using a flashback. One of the few musicals to use this gimmick successfully was 1964's Funny Girl.

In the opening sequence, a sadder-but-wiser Fanny Brice crosses the stage, stops for a moment to stare out into the theater and then, upon entering her dressing room, looks into the mirror. When her dresser, Emma, leaves her alone for a few minutes, Fanny begins to think back on her life and her incredible journey all the way from Hester Street ("If A Girl Isn't Pretty") to becoming the star of the Ziegfeld Follies.

At the end of the show, after Fanny has sung "The Music That Makes Me Dance," there is a blackout and the lights come up once again on Fanny, seated in front of her dressing room mirror as she anticipates the arrival of her husband, Nicky Arnstein (who has just been released from jail). Following the emotional journey that Fanny has shared with the audience, her farewell to Nicky is the perfect setup for the show's climactic reprise of Don't Rain On My Parade.

In 1968, when the film version of Funny Girl was directed by the great William Wyler, the finale was changed so that Barbra Streisand could sing one of Fanny Brice's biggest hits: My Man. The result can be seen in this thrilling clip:

In 1971, when a controversial new musical starring Angela Lansbury and directed by Gower Champion began its tryout in Boston, I attended an early performance of Prettybelle. Despite having book and lyrics by Bob Merrill (and a musical score by Jule Styne), Prettybelle kept yanking the audience back and forth between a confusing series of flashbacks that made little sense.

I was horrified by the mess onstage.

After returning home to Providence, Rhode Island that night, I typed up six pages of notes that stressed the need to get rid of all the flashbacks and then mailed my letter to Lansbury (with whom I had been corresponding since our first meeting in 1966). By the time I returned to Boston three weeks later to catch another performance of Prettybelle, the producers had announced their intention to close the show on the road rather than bring the production to Broadway.

As I watched from the balcony of the Shubert Theatre, I was more than a little startled by the transformation that had taken place onstage. Later, when I went to visit Lansbury in her dressing room, she smiled and said "I gave your notes to Gower and, as you can see, he used them!"

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While Shakespeare's murderous Macbeth may claim that "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day," the melancholy Hamlet cautions his troupe of actors that "The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King."

While kings may have a wisp of a conscience, dumb jock closet cases do not. This causes a real problem for any director attempting to stage Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's play, Good Boys and True, which recently opened a short run at New Conservatory Theatre Center.

The play opens in 1988 with a young preppie, Brandon Hardy (Brady Boyd), showing a group of prospective families around the campus of St. Joseph's Academy. Like many students at this private school close to the nation's capital, Brandon is a legacy case who is heavily invested in sports. Although he is a gung-ho member of the football team, his physique and personality are much more impressive than his intellect.

Unlike Brandon, his best friend at St. Joseph's is an out and proud young gay man. Smart, culturally aware, and refreshingly blunt, Justin (Sal Matos) has more integrity in his little finger than most of the other characters in the play. He is the first person in his family to attend a private school.

Brandon and Justin have been secretly plotting to go to Dartmouth after they graduate (where they plan to room together). In the meantime, Justin has obviously been giving Brandon a whole lot more than the copious notes he takes in class.

Sal Matos and Brady Boyd (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Good Boys and True revolves around the crisis that erupts when the school's football coach (Mark Irwin) discovers a videotape showing a young man -- who looks exactly like Brandon -- fucking a young woman while repeatedly positioning her so that her face will be visible to a hidden camera. As a close friend of Brandon's father, the coach immediately contacts Brandon's parents to ask if they know anything about the tape.

Brandon's father is away in Ecuador with a group of traveling physicians, but his mother (another surgeon) is incredulous that the coach could even imagine that her son, the very apple of her eye, would have any interest in doing something so disgusting. In her heart of hearts, she knows that her son is just not "like that" -- until she watches the tape and is forced to confront Brandon with her newfound knowledge.

Brandon (who comes from an extremely privileged background) has always had life handed to him on a silver platter. Whenever he's gotten in trouble, his father has always been able to make a phone call that resolved the situation. After many years of observation, Brandon has learned how to keep a poker face while reassuring his overly fraught mother that everything will be all right.

Tall, strapping, slyly manipulative and handsome as hell, when cornered he exhibits the kind of communication skills that would make Levi Johnston seem downright effusive. While watching Elizabeth Hardy (Jennifer McGeorge) try to get her son to understand the implications of what he had done, I couldn't help but think of Barney Frank's recent comment to a protestor: "Arguing with you, ma'am, would be like trying to have an argument with the dining room table."

Jennifer McGeorge and Brady Boyd (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Watching a flashback fail in a staged production is often uncomfortable for the audience. Why? If the moment has not been properly set up, the audience might wonder what is going on. In some cases, the flashback may come too late to do any good. Although the first act of Good Boys and True follows a linear path, its second act is bracketed by two critical flashbacks.

At the beginning of Act II, the audience sees Brandon trying to pick up Cheryl Moody at the shopping mall. The play's final scene is a flashback showing what happened when Brandon first met Justin in the locker room at St. Joseph's (and how the two boys started to bond over their mutual love for The Hardy Boys). While there's an obvious gay spark to their conversation, the scene offers too little information and occurs too late in the evening. The play then ends abruptly, in a manner that left some members of the audience thinking "Huh? What the fuck was that?"

Nevertheless, Good Boys and True does raise some important points about the complicity of some people in enabling others to engage in sexual abuse. The most notable scene in the play occurs when Brandon's mother seeks out Cheryl Moody in the food court at the shopping mall where Cheryl works and tries to make amends by saying she would do anything to ease Cheryl's pain.

Cheryl, whose life has effectively been ruined by the news coverage of the incident, gives her a scathing description of the "things she could do" -- which include paying for Cheryl's college tuition -- before explaining that Mrs. Hardy has no intention of actually doing anything. She's just saying these things in order to feel better about herself.

John Dixon's anemic stage direction didn't help matters at all. Although he got decent performances out of Jennifer McGeorge as Brandon's mother, Erin Hoffman as his aunt, and Vivian Kane as Cheryl Moody, Brady Boyd's good natured performance as Brandon -- while easy on the eyes -- was almost laughable. He was easily outclassed by Sal Matos as Justin and Mark Irwin as Coach Shea.

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If flashbacks work better on television and in film, it's often because it is so easy to edit them. Characters can be dressed and made up to look younger, the setting can be changed to a noticeably earlier event, and it's so much easier to convince an audience that they are looking back at a previous moment in a character's life.

In terms of analyzing news events, the writers and research team at The Daily Show With Jon Stewart have become experts at mining comedy gold from news archives. The following segment unmasking Glenn Beck's ridiculous hypocrisy is a stellar example of how flashbacks can be used for maximum effect:

Some filmmakers handle flashbacks better than others. As written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber -- and neatly directed by Mark Webb -- (500) Days of Summer takes the audience on a dizzying journey back and forth through a young man's fixation on a pretty girl.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel

Although the film actually begins on day 488 of their relationship, each segment is cued by an indication of which one of the 500 days the audience is revisiting in the up-and-down romance between Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel).

In one brilliantly written segment, a split screen shows what happens when Tom attends a party thrown by Summer. On the left side of the screen, we see the action through the hopeful lens of Tom's expectations. On the right side of the screen, we see the exact same party through the crushing lens of reality.

I was particularly interested in seeing this film because I have always admired the work of Joseph Gordon-Levitt since I first watched him on Third Rock From The Sun. But (500) Days of Summer also benefits from strong performances by Geoffrey Arend as Tom's friend McKenzie, Chloe Moretz as his precocious younger sister Rachel, Clark Gregg as his employer at a greeting card business, and Jason Robinson in a hilariously graphic cameo as one of Summer's former boyfriends: the magnificently endowed "Puma."

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel

(500) Days of Summer is also about the importance of learning to be honest with yourself and the people in your life, instead of just sleepwalking through a cloud of bullshit. Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel bring new life to the genre of intelligent romance -- a style so intoxicating, poignant, and refreshing that it almost feels new.

Whether playfully testing the bedroom furniture in an Ikea showroom or daring each other to act out in public by pretending to have Tourette syndrome, these two appealing leads make a enticing pair of emotionally mismatched souls. Here's the trailer:

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