Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Schizo Scherzo

There's an old saying that, if you life long enough, anything can happen. Such was the case last Wednesday, when I went to the Castro Theatre to catch a rare screening of 1936's Strike Me Pink starring Eddie Cantor and Ethel Merman. A sign at the box office announced that, due to a problem with the print, there was no sound during the musical numbers.

What followed was rather amazing. Not only were there long passages where I could watch Merman sing without being able to hear her (definitely a first), but the film also had subtitles in Italian! The whole experience left me thinking about dramas in which a character has a hidden personality that few people know about.
Dramatists and screenwriters constantly make hay out of schizophrenia (Roseanne Barr claims to suffer from multiple personality disorder) and wondering what might have happened if their plot had gone in a different direction. In the following video clip from a documentary about the 1985 Lincoln Center concert version of Stephen Sondheim's 1971 musical, Follies, Lee Remick talks about the character of Phyllis Stone and sings "The Story of Lucy and Jessie" (which, by all rights, deserves to become the anthem for patients with borderline personality disorder).

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A new independent film by Scott McGehee and David Siegel is opening up in theatres this weekend and, if you're smart, you'll avoid it like the plague. The concept for Uncertainty probably sounded awesome on paper (or when it was being explained to someone who was stoned on his ass). Here's the gimmick:

Two young lovers (who apparently have difficulty making up their minds about anything) are faced with a critical decision. Kate (Lynn Collins) is pregnant and must decide whether to carry the child to term or abort. She meets her relatively new boyfriend Bobby (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) halfway across the Brooklyn Bridge on a sunny afternoon and they flip a coin to decide which plan of action to take.

The film then splits into two parallel scenarios. In the yellow scenario (wherein Bobby is wearing a yellow T shirt), the couple runs toward Manhattan, finds a lost cell phone in the back seat of a taxi, and discovers that it's worth a lot more than they expected. When Kate and Bobby try to ransom the phone for money, they end up being chased around Manhattan by an Asian assassin.

In the green scenario (wherein Bobby is wearing a green shirt), the couple goes to visit Kate's family in Brooklyn, finds a stray dog, grills some food in the back yard, and gives Kate's mentally challenged uncle Felix (Nelson Landrieu) a ride back to his residence at an adult care facility.

Part of the gimmick is that the film has been edited so that the couple finds an important object, eats, sleeps, and awakens the next morning at the exact same dramatic time in each scenario. While there was a definite script outline for the action, most of the ponderously wooden dialogue was improvised by the actors.

Using natural light as much as possible during the visit to Kate's family, the filmmakers' earnest attempts at realism quickly turn to vapid drek. Why? Kate and Bobby are two incredibly boring and stupid people. How stupid?
  • On their way to visit Kate's family in Brooklyn, Bobby notices an old dog limping across an intersection. He pulls the van over to the curb, gets the dog, and brings it with him into Kate's mother's home without the slightest bit of hesitation. Would you do that if your girlfriend's parents had no idea that you had gotten her pregnant and this was the first time you were visiting their home?
  • In Manhattan, after seeing a man who tried to retrieve the cell phone get gunned down in broad daylight, Kate and Bobby decide that the best place to rendezvous with the phone's purported owner would be inside a bank that has large plate glass windows. Why? That way they could see when the man arrived and check him out. Did they not think he could see them through the bank's windows and check them out as well?
Life's too short to waste your time or money on a film like Uncertainty. Unless, of course, you're the kind of person who does not know how to be bored and needs to pay money for the privilege. Continuity freaks who are familiar with where pedestrian walkways are positioned on each of the bridges spanning the East River will have some hearty chuckles. Here's the trailer (which is a whole lot better than the film):

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Several years ago I ran into an old acquaintance who was going through a difficult midlife crisis. In his professional life, he was known for his excellent work as a character actor and an intelligent team worker. However, because younger (and cheaper) talent was starting to get the roles he assumed would continue to be his bread and butter, there were fewer job offers coming his way. His agent, who had been a guiding force in his professional life, had bigger fish to fry.

The man's long-term lover (an aggressive and manipulative conservative businessman who was a dominant force in their home life) had recently succumbed to AIDS. The performer looked at me with a quiet terror in his eyes and said "I'm 45 years old and I don't know who I am."

The confused agony of his identity crisis came to mind as I watched The Private Lives of Pippa Lee. Ironically, so did the tale of a friend in Philadelphia who confessed that she had recently awoken to find her pillowcase and sheets covered with marinara sauce and could not figure out how it got there. This was long before certain side effects of Ambien (sleep walking, sleep talking, driving while asleep, binge eating while asleep) became public knowledge.

Directed by Rebecca Miller (who also wrote the novel), The Private Lives of Pippa Lee catches its protagonist at a curious turning point in her life. A handsome woman in her fifties, Pippa (Robin Wright Penn) and her husband Herb (Alan Arkin), who is 30 years her senior, have just moved into a retirement community where he fears that she is simply waiting for him to die.

Pippa's two children Ben (Ryan McDonald) and Grace (Zoe Kazan) are now fully grown. After spending much of her adult life caring for others, Pippa suddenly finds herself with extra time on her hands and not much skill at putting it to good use.

Dazed and confused, sweet and serene (but not always sure whether she is awake or sleepwalking) Pippa is groping her way through life in her retirement community. Her predicament is neatly summed up in the lyric to this Cy Coleman/Dorothy Fields number from 1966's Sweet Charity:
"Where am I going?
And what will I find?
What's in this grab bag
That I call my mind?
What am I doing
Alone on the shelf?
Ain't it a shame
But no one's to blame but myself.

Which way is clear
When you've lost your way
Year after year?

Do I keep falling in love for just the kick of it?
Staggering through the thin and thick of it?
Hating each old and tired trick of it?
Know what I am, I'm good and sick of it!
Where am I going?
Why do I care?
Run to the Bronx
Or Washington Square,
No matter where I run
I meet myself there
Looking inside me. What do I see?
Anger and hope and doubt.
What am I all about?
Where am I going?
You tell me!"
Pippa's neighbor Dot (Shirley Knight), whose 35-year-old son has suddenly moved back home from Utah, has identified her as someone she can confide in. But Pippa is starting to notice some disturbing problems of her own. After getting kicked out of her adult pottery class for being rude to the instructor, she must find out who has been breaking into her new condo and smearing chocolate cake all over the walls. After Herb installs a surveillance camera, Pippa discovers -- to her absolute horror -- that she is a sleepwalker.

Keanu Reeves and Robin Wright Penn

She soon discovers that Herb has been having an affair with their close friend, Sandra (Winona Ryder). When Herb succumbs to a heart attack, Pippa suddenly finds herself free -- for the first time in years -- to be herself. But who is that?

Then, of course, there is Dot's heavily tattooed and markedly antisocial son, Chris (Keanu Reeves), a self-professed asshole who, simply by not fitting in with his mother's peer group, has a strange attraction. Is Chris just another troubled soul or Pippa's ticket to freedom?

According to Miller (who is the daughter of playwright Arthur Miller and the wife of actor Daniel Day-Lewis), she got the idea for her novel after meeting a friend whom she hadn’t seen in twenty years at a reunion. Much to the filmmaker's surprise, her friend (who had been quite irrepressible in her youth), had evolved into a responsible wife and mother.

“I started thinking about how that happens, how somebody’s identity mutates in that way, and whether or not you really ever change. That was the fundamental seed of it," explains Miller, whose film features numerous flashbacks to critical moments in Pippa's life.
  • We see a young girl trying to make sense out of her mother's erratic behavior without understanding that Suky Sarkissian (Maria Bello) is a speed freak.
  • We see the confused young Pippa (Blake Lively), leave home to stay with her aunt Trish (Robin Weigert) and Trish's lover Kat (Julianne Moore), who likes to direct lesbian porn.
  • We see Pippa as a self-absorbed young druggie when she first meets Herb, and follow their courtship.
  • We see her at a traumatic lunch with Herb and his first wife, Gigi (Monica Belluci), that radically changes the course of Pippa's life.
Robin Wright Penn and Keanu Reeves

Miller describes the screenwriting process as a reinvention of her novel, rather than an adaptation in the purest sense.
"From the beginning, I knew that I didn’t need to be enslaved to the book because I’d already written it. I had the freedom to explore. For me, the movie is just a deeper and deeper search into the same terrain, even if its form is not the same. There was so much in the well that I wanted to keep going. I wanted to see it in a different dimension. I wanted to give it to actors and see what they could do with it. In some small ways, the plot isn’t the same. Even the characters, in ways, are not the same because of the actors’ interpretations.”
While large parts of the film concern Pippa's struggles to find an identity that is all her own, there are small and often wonderful moments that have little to do with the protagonist. I was delighted to see 87-year-old veteran Broadway actress Joan Copeland (who is Arthur Miller's younger sister) playing the piano in a small scene. Mike Bender's portrayal of Herb's friend and client, Sam Shapiro, is a nebbishy delight. Much of Michael Rohatyn's original music is a delicate piano score that, in its whimsy and coyness, masks the inner turmoil of Pippa's identity crisis.

Miller was fortunate to gather a cast of skilled actors who inhabit their roles so subtly that they become totally believable. Winona Ryder offers a magnificent performance as a guilty lover while Robin Wright Penn glides through the script with an odd combination of detachment and curiosity about what awaits her in the next stage of her life.

While it would be easy to pigeonhole The Private Lives of Pippa Lee as a chick flick, this film is filled with life's little misfires, opportunities, and contradictions. Rebecca Miller does a masterful job of exploring the grey areas in a greying woman's life where nothing is as sure as it used to be. Here's the trailer:

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In his 1984 penny dreadful entitled The Mystery of Irma Vep, playwright Charles Ludlam created a masterpiece of quick-change stage farce in which two actors assumed a variety of roles. Others (notably Jaston Williams and Joe Sears of Greater Tuna fame) have enjoyed great success with this comic genre. The latest entry is Patrick Barlow's reworking of Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, in which four actors tackle 139 roles in two acts.

When Maria Aitken was first approached about directing Barlow's play, she wasn't sure how to approach the project:
"I was pretty bewildered by the script at first. It didn't have any stage directions of any kind. The original production had two actors doing the whole play in village halls and small theatres. In a previous touring production with four actors, the set and costume designer (Peter McKintosh) just used an empty theatre, three trunks, and some ladders. But there's theatrical magic to be found in telling a film story using the audience's imagination. The whole point about the production is that it is an homage not only to the Hitchcock film, but also to the theater itself. It's done simply with smoke, four trunks, three ladders, four overworked and daring actors, and that's it. We almost do the film frame by frame. Patrick's dialogue is at least 60 percent from the film. We've added more jokes and more references to Hitchcock's other movies throughout."
The touring cast of The 39 Steps (Photo by: Craig Schwartz)

As part of her creative vision, Aitken imagined a small repertory company in England during the 1950s whose leading man desperately wanted to play the Richard Hannay character because he believed he'd create a sensation in the heroic role played by British matinee idol Robert Donat in Hitchcock's film. As she explains:
"This leading man can only muster a leading lady if he gives her three parts to play. And there are two old annoying vaudevillians that are left over from some other production at that theatre. He tells them they have to play all the rest of the roles (all 150 of them) and play them straight. But they don't always behave like they are supposed to. This causes a lot of tension and conflict backstage. Some of that tension and conflict spills out onto the stage during the telling of the story. Audiences love that. They also enjoy watching actors working their butts off. The actors in this show always lose weight. They all give up the gym."
This video clip (taken from the New York production) shows how deftly the two supporting actors have to juggle their accents and identities during a performance:

When I first saw Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps in New York, I was so transfixed with what was happening onstage that it was all I could do to stay on top of the action. A second viewing at the show's recent opening night at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco allowed me the luxury of concentrating on the show's meticulously choreographed physical comedy. Much of Aitken's stage direction involves a precision ballet featuring rapid-fire costume changes, a plethora of sight gags, and the challenge of four actors telling a complex story using every kind of theatrical device they can get their hands on (ranging from slapstick and stage fog to shadow play and drag, from foreign accents and blackouts to bad puns and outrageous stage props).

Eric Hissom and Ted Deasy (Photo by: Craig Schwartz)

The show requires a quartet of actors with remarkable stamina and timing. In the following video clip, the cast that performed on tour in Sydney and Hong Kong discussed the challenges they face onstage during each performance:

The San Francisco cast features Claire Brownell, Ted Deasy, Eric Hissom, and Scott Parkinson (all of whom manage to keep moving at breakneck speed). What I love about this show is how imaginatively it uses age-old theatrical devices while keeping audiences delighted with each new development.

The following collage of moments from the Broadway production should be sufficient to propel you down to the Curran for a night of great fun. Performances continue through January 3, 2010. You can order tickets here.

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