Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Desperately Seeking Satisfaction

Life isn't fair. Some people continue to get shafted while others end up nursing internal conflicts that may never get resolved. Often, the people who struggle to do the right thing end up with mud on their faces.

In the opening moments of Harper Regan (which is currently receiving its West Coast premiere at the SFPlayhouse), the 45-year-old female protagonist at the center of this depressing dramedy by Simon Stephens gets more bad news. After requesting a few days off from her boss, Elwood Barnes (Richard Frederick), Harper (Susi Damilano) is told that while it's really a shame that her father is in a diabetic coma, there's no way the company can afford to be without her during the current paperwork crunch. While Mr. Barnes takes plenty of time to wax nostalgic about sentimental things, he's a heartless executive with no intention of letting Harper (who has never missed a day's work) take so much as a sick day to visit her dying father.

It's not like Harper doesn't already have enough problems in her life. She and her family were forced to leave Stockwell and move to Uxbridge (another London suburb) after her husband was caught photographing young children in a park and arrested as a potential sex offender. After his computer was confiscated, and he plea bargained his way out of a trial, Seth (Michael Keys Hall) has become virtually unemployable as an architect. With their daughter in college, the family can't afford for Harper to lose her job.

Monique Hafen and Susi Damilano (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Consumed with guilt over the fact that she never told her father how much she loved him, Harper opts to disappear for a few days. Whether in a favorite park, in a bar in Manchester, or during an angry visit with her estranged mother, she learns a lot about herself through a series of encounters. Among the people who reflect Harper's sad realities back to her are:
  • Tobias Rich (Daniel Redmond), the young black student Harper meets in the park who is very attracted to older women. Although Tobias has no idea who Harper is, the truth is that Harper knows where he lives and, in her desperate loneliness, has been stalking him.
  • Justine Ross (Monique Hafen), a young nurse who tries to console Harper after she arrival at the hospital in Manchester too late to visit her father (who has just died).
  • Mickey Nestor (Richard Frederick), an obnoxious, anti-Semitic drunk who puts the make on Harper when he spots her in a bar following her father's death. After trying on Mickey's motorcycle jacket, Harper ends up breaking a wine glass over his head and fleeing the scene.
  • James Fortune (Michael Keys Hall), a married father of three sons who meets up with Harper at a hotel for some extramarital sex after she answers his personal ad.
  • Allison Woolley (Joy Carlin), Harper's estranged mother who has not had any contact with her daughter for two years. Although she tries her best to make peace with Harper, Allison's words only reopen old wounds.
  • Duncan Woolley (John Mercer), Harper's jovial stepfather who likes to think of himself as Allison's "toyboy."
  • Mahesh Aslam, (Daniel Redmond) a young immigrant who has been helping Duncan with his landscaping business.
  • Sarah (Monique Hafen), Harper's intelligent, bitter, and rebellious daughter.

Susi Damilano and Daniel Redmond (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Although Bill English's unit set (inspired by British sculptor Rachel Whiteread's most famous piece of art, "House") and Amy Glazer's direction (which often resembles operatic blocking) try to lift Harper Regan off the ground, the play is a futile exercise in trying to wring drama from a depressed family situation. 

It's easy to see why the script appealed to the company's co-founder, Susi Damilano. Harper is onstage throughout most of the evening and the play affords her some poignant, if dreary moments.  Unfortunately, Simon Stephens' unrelentingly dull script does not seem to have fared very well in crossing the Atlantic. That being said, I very much enjoyed the performances by Monique Hafen, Daniel Redmond and, of course, Ms. Damilano.

* * * * * * * *
Opening up on February 11 for a week's run at the San Francisco Film Society Screen at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas is a surprisingly lovely new film directed by  Silvio Soldini. Unlike most films in which an extramarital affair results from spousal neglect or domestic abuse, Come Undone focuses on two people who have a chance meeting in the workplace and sense a mild spark. After the woman becomes more aggressive, they proceed to fall in love.

Domenico (Pierfrancesco Favino) and Anna (Alba Rohrwacher)

Both Anna (Alba Rohrwacher) and Domenico (Pierfrancesco Favino) are involved in stable, long-term relationships. Anna has a nice steady job at an office in Milan and a loyal and considerate husband at home in the suburbs. Alessio (Giuseppe Battiston) is a nice big bear of a man who loves to fix things for their friends,  Although childless, Anna has no major complaints about their marriage (Alessio has indicated that he is ready to start a family if she is willing).

Alessio (Giuseppe Battiston) and Anna (Alba Rohrwacher) 

Domenico is a married cater-waiter with a daughter named Agnese (Francesca Capelli) on whom he dotes. Although Agnese wants to take ballet lessons, Domenico doesn't earn enough through his work with a banquet company. He's overextended and if his wife, Miriam (Teresa Sapoangelo), senses that something is missing in their marriage, it is mostly because she is exhausted from staying at home trying to raise their children in a small, claustrophobic apartment.

Come Undone shows a surprising deftness in tackling the problems faced by two lovers who have nowhere to meet and must seize tiny increments of time together whenever possible. The film also uses texting as a key plot engine (it's the only way Anna and Domenico can communicate with each other in moments of loneliness).

What Soldini captures so well in his film is the concept that the loneliest place a person can be is in the middle of a stable relationship. Anna finds a way to duck out of a weekend in the country with her friends Bruno (Fabio Troiano) and Chicca (Monica Nappo) so that she can spend time with Domenico. Her closest friend at work, Bianca (Tatiana Lepore), knows something is wrong but doesn't pry until she is caught up in the wake of Domenico's erupting emotion. While Anna and Domenico are each intoxicated with their newfound love, each feels a strong sense of responsibility to their spouse. As Soldini notes:
"A story like this could only be set in Milan. Anna lives in the hinterland and, to get to work each day, she comes into the city by train. Her parents and her aunt live on the outskirts, where they have a laundry. Domenico lives in a sort of suburban skyscraper.  I liked the idea of investigating the relationship between the city center and its outskirts, which has changed a lot recently, both from a sociological and from a pictorial point of view. I was interested in filming a modified urban landscape: the shopping malls, the work in progress, the construction sites."

Anna (Alba Rohrwacher)

What makes Come Undone so appealing is that its pacing is uneven in a way that reflects real life. Its protagonists are conflicted between their real relationships and their newfound love. Topping it all are beautifully layered performances by Alba Rohrwacher (who was so impressive as Tilda Swinton's lesbian daughter in I Am Love) and Pierfrancesco Favino, whose weathered face often evokes images of Javier Bardem.

Anna (Alba Rohrwacher) and Domenico (Pierfrancesco Favino)

While Come Undone doesn't offer easy answers about how to navigate one's way through an extramarital affair, Soldini frames each character's little lies and growing insecurities in a way that transforms it into a surprisingly satisfying film. Here's the trailer:

No comments: