Thursday, June 1, 2017

Just When You Think You Know Someone

Anyone who has been in a long-term relationship knows that it takes a lot of work and compromise to keep things copacetic. Once the exhilaration of letting someone new into one's life (and talk of marriage or simply moving in together) crosses over the line from fantasy into reality, personal habits and temperamental quirks come into much sharper focus.

While two people work to build the kind of emotional intimacy that feels like it should last a lifetime, they must also learn how to accommodate one another's tastes in food, music, and sex. Over time, a reluctance to share in household chores (or deal with one person's curious ideas about punctuality) can become ongoing sources of irritation. Even more than growing accustomed to someone's face, people must acclimate to each other's body odors and noise levels. One's tendency to snore or hog the blanket can establish a bedtime battleground

Throw some dogs and cats into the mix and moments of solitude become fewer and fewer. As time moves on, grown men and women learn just how well they can play with other adults. Sometimes opposites attract and introverts can build comfortable unions with extrovert's. At other times, one person's insistence on getting some "me time" can create confusing psychological barriers.

And what about secrets? The days of a sailor who keeps a girl in every port may be long gone, but plenty of stories have been written about traveling salesmen and flight attendants who "meat and greet" new friends on a regular basis. What about the airline pilots whose secret lives with second families in another city are revealed to their primary spouses?

One frequently encounters people who can't make a simple decision without consulting their "other half." In some relationships, one person may be an outgoing workaholic while another feels stifled by routine and sorely neglected. When it comes to placing unnecessary stress on a relationship, the most volatile factors tend to be secrets, lies, and a crushing sense of income inequality. What happens when one person suddenly disappears? How does their partner cope with such a devastating loss?

As inventions like answering machines, voicemail, caller ID, and social media have become more powerful forces in our lives, it's become a lot easier to ignore someone by hiding behind a virtual fence created with today's technology. Two dramas new to Bay area audiences demonstrate (with remarkable clarity) just how effectively electronics can liberate one person while leaving another to suffer from the anguish brought on by alienation and uncertainty.

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What do Smurfs, Rugrats, Transformers, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles all have in common? They have all become media franchises that, like many Disney characters, appeal to multiple generations. If the Lego empire can produce a series of adventure movies, then why shouldn't the favorite geosocial networking app of gay men everywhere (Grindr) get a road trip movie of its own?

Pascal Cervo stars as Pierre Thomas in Jours de France

Written and directed by Jérôme Reybaud, Jours de France (4 Days in France) might seem excessively long with a running time of 141 minutes, but the time passes easily as the viewer accompanies its handsome protagonist, Pierre Thomas (Pascal Cervo), as he leaves Paris in his white Alfa Romeo and travels through the valleys and Alpine regions of France while listening to classical music. Reybaud's film begins early one morning as Pierre uses the flashlight in his smartphone to scan the sleeping body of his older lover, Paul (Arthur Igual), before picking up a small duffle bag and heading for parts unknown.

There is no indication that Pierre is unhappy with their relationship or that he has done a lot of advance planning for this trip. Maybe he just needs some time alone to sort things out and get reacquainted with himself. However, when Paul awakens and finds his lover missing, his concern mounts. After being stood up for their date at the opera, Paul realizes there is might be a way to track Pierre down by following the GPS locations of his profile on Grindr.

Arthur Igual is Pierre's concerned lover, Paul, in Jours de France

As Pierre wends his way through the countryside, he opens himself up to a series of chance encounters.
  • When a middle-aged woman named Diane Querqueville (Fabienne Babe) flags him down on a country road beside a parked red car, he generously offers to drive her to the next town where she is scheduled to sing for the residents of a nursing home. When Diane asks if he needs a place to stay, Pierre calmly replies that he can easily find a warm bed with a welcoming stranger through Grindr and explains how his personality makes it easy for him to accommodate another man's desires (gentlemen may prefer blondes, but pliable, bland bottoms appeal to a different kind of man).
  • A phone conversation with his aunt Judith (Lilianne Montevecchi), an aging actress who boasts about never giving people her opinion or offering any advice to friends, ends with Judith giving Pierre a mysterious set of directions (which he dutifully follows). After Judith announces her personal credo ("Liberty, Dignity, and Virility"), her directions lead Pierre on a wild goose chase until he falls back on a more reliable navigational tool -- searching for nearby rest areas and popular cruising spots on Grindr.
Liliane Montevecchi as Judith Joubert in Jours de France
  • A brief stop at a small town bookstore displaying The Education of Rabbits in its front window leads Pierre to a surprising rendezvous with the shop's owner (Nathalie Richard), a woman who was once his babysitter and always found his boyish looks quite attractive.
  • As night sets in, a hookup with a lonely teenager named Matthieu (Mathieu Chevé) who longs to move to Paris leads to a request for Pierre to deliver a package to a friend of Matthieu's (Marie France) who lives near the mountains.
Poster art for Jours de France (4 Days in France)

Other encounters are less fortuitous.
  • When Pierre leaves his car door unlocked, a homeless woman steals his belongings.
  • After spending a night sleeping in his car, Pierre is rebuffed by an older man who doesn't like the way Pierre's crotch smells or the fact that he has heard Pierre's voice (although the man is more than willing to serve him lunch after Pierre washes up at a nearby spring).
  • A bicyclist asks Pierre to take his picture as they stand by the windswept, snowy border with Italy.
  • A handsome traveling salesman (Bernard Nadler) asks if he can fulfill a lifelong fantasy of driving an Alfa Romeo but shows no sexual interest in Pierre upon their return to their motel.
Bertrand Nadler and Pascal Cervo in a scene from Jours de France

Meanwhile, after having been stood up for their date at the Paris Opera, Paul is worried and determined to find Pierre. As he drives around in a rented Volvo, his frustration mounts until he starts to get clues to his lover's whereabouts. Along the way, he accepts a blowjob from a horny waitress, visits with his friend Didier (Olivier Galinou) and Didier's mother (Raymonde Bell), and draws closer to his wandering partner.

Reybaud has an uncanny way of capturing people's loneliness and their yearning to connect while proving the old adage that no matter how much one longs to see if the grass is greener on the other side, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bushes. Pascal Cervo offers a beautifully restrained portrait of a goal-less young man who has almost always let himself be defined by others and has recently begun to wonder who he is and where he belongs. Easily malleable and willing to let things happen to him, Pierre's passive personality offers a sharp contrast to Arthur Igaul's intense and sultry Paul.

Pierre (Pascal Cervo) listens to the sounds of a traveling
salesman in the next room in a scene from Jours de France

While Sabine Lancelin's cinematography is often breathtaking, the natural beauty of rural France gets some formidable competition from the charismatic flair and severe magnetism of Liliane Montevecchi's self-absorbed Judith. Now in her mid-80s, the former prima ballerina still knows how to milk a cameo appearance for all it's worth. Reybaud's film will be screened during the upcoming Frameline Film Festival. Here's the trailer:

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The San Francisco Playhouse is presenting the Bay area premiere of Jen Silverman's play, The Roommate, in a superb production directed by the very talented Becca Wolff. Working on a brightly-lit unit set designed by Nina Ball, this two-character play revolves around two drastically different middle-aged women whose lives intersect after one answers the other's ad for a roommate who can help share expenses. As the playwright explains:
“I really wanted to write a play for bad-ass women in their fifties. I thought there is a kind of energy, a kind of concentration that happens when they are the two players on that stage and have all that agency and all that power. To me, it’s about transformation: what it takes to get to a point in your life (whatever that point is) where you look at your life and realize 'I cannot do this anymore. I can’t live this life. I can’t wear these clothes and walk through my day the way I’ve been doing.' So I had to stay very specific to what these two people need and want. What are they giving each other? What are they not giving each other? What are the beats between them -- or the beats that move this thing forward?”
Julia Brothers (Robyn) and Susi Damilano (Sharon) in a
scene from The Roommate (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Originally from Illinois, Sharon (Susi Damilano) may not be a native Iowan, but she has been living in the Hawkeye State for much of her adult life. With her son now grown up and living in New York City and her husband no longer in the picture, she has "retired from marriage" but not necessarily from life. Although she participates in a women's book club, Sharon is starved for any kind of stimulation (be it mental, spiritual, emotional and/or sexual).

Obviously suffering from empty nest syndrome, Sharon is in desperate need of some new friends and new hobbies that don't revolve around leaving guilt-laden voicemail messages for her son. The fact that she has never smoked marijuana or known any gay people doesn't mean that Sharon lacks curiosity; she's just been treading water in the middle of nowhere with nothing exciting happening in her life.

Robyn (Julia Brothers) is much more secretive about her past. Having moved to Iowa City to escape a bad situation in The Bronx, she has a dicey relationship with her daughter, Amanda. A fiercely independent vegan who's a bit on the butch side, Robyn holds her cards close to her chest as a means of protecting herself and making equally sure that she doesn't hurt an innocent person she might actually care about.

The first half of The Roommate delivers lots of nervous laughs as Sharon and Robyn try to negotiate their way into a new friendship without stepping too heavily on each other's toes. Sharon has a talent for verbal clumsiness and is easily shocked when Robyn suggests that she create an online dating profile in order to find herself an attractive male companion. Meanwhile, as Robyn starts to let her guard down, her closely-held secrets open up a Pandora's box of ideas which titillate and fascinate Sharon to the point where she wants to take a walk on the wild side and, for the first time in her life, be a bad girl. A really bad girl.

Julia Brothers (Robyn) and Susi Damilano (Sharon) in a
scene from The Roommate (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Peeking through some of Robyn's belongings leads Sharon to some distressing discoveries but. while she might fantasize about being a mysterious female poet, Sharon is such a square that she can barely imagine what Robyn has been involved in. However, once she gets a hint of what it could mean to be a really bad girl, she's hooked and hungry for adventure. As her mind starts racing with possibilities, it becomes obvious that she has no idea what kind of trouble she could be getting herself into. Robyn, on the other hands, knows the score all too well.

Susi Damilano co-stars as Sharon in a scene from The Roommate
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Since its world premiere in March 2015 at the Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, The Roommate has received several productions in regional theatres. A one-set, 90-minute play for two characters, it is an extremely economical show for any company to include in an upcoming season that offers much greater depth and heart than the first half hour might lead audiences to expect.

Julia Brothers (Robyn) and Susi Damilano (Sharon) in a
scene from The Roommate (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

It's a credit to both actresses that they do such a beautiful job of revealing the complex emotional layers and scarred relationships usually kept hidden behind their functional exteriors. Damilano, in particular, does an exquisite job of capturing Sharon's nervous vulnerability and her determination to pursue dangerous risks if they will at least get her out of her rut. It's a beautifully-etched portrayal, for which Julia Brothers provides the perfect foil.

Performances of The Roommate continue through July 1 at the San Francisco Playhouse (click here for tickets).

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