Monday, April 27, 2009

On Meeting McNally

Those readers who also follow my Tweets on Twitter will already know that I saw the new production of Ragtime at the Kennedy Center last Saturday night and that, to my delight and surprise, the Tony Award-winning playwright Terrence McNally was in the audience, seated almost directly in front of me.

It turns out that the whole creative team of Ragtime was there to see the show last weekend. In addition to McNally, who wrote the book of Ragtime (based on E.L. Doctorow's novel), composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens were also present.

After the final curtain call, I had an opportunity to chat briefly with Mr. McNally. (I even obtained his autograph in my program. I may be a critic, but I'm also a fan.) While I was interviewing him for The Metro Herald, Mr. Flaherty also joined us; he signed autographs for other fans. I was also able to take a few photographs -- not in the best lighting conditions, but at least there is a record of the meeting. (You can see some of the results nearby.) Unfortunately, I wasn't able to reach the trifecta of also meeting Ms. Ahrens.

My review of the show is not yet complete (but you can see what I wrote about the original national tour and about the Broadway production as well). This does provide, however, an excuse to post a review of another Terrence McNally play (and movie) -- not a musical, but it does have some dancing in it -- Love! Valour! Compassion!

A sidenote: I saw the original Broadway production of Love! Valour! Compassion! in 1995. In the audience that night was veteran stage and screen actor Hume Cronyn. Though tempted to introduce myself, I was restrained (and polite) enough to let him have his privacy. At the time, I would not have even had the rationale of being a drama critic to justify being intrusive.

In any case, here is my review of Terrence McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion!, which appeared in The Metro Herald in June 1997:

A Study in Contrasts:
Love! Valour! Compassion!
on Stage and Screen

Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

How fortuitous for Washington-area drama lovers that the film adaptation of Terrence McNally's Tony-award-winning play, Love! Valour! Compassion!, has opened just when the area's premiere of the stage production is playing at the Studio Theatre. This gives us a rare opportunity to compare and contrast drama in its live form with its cinematic counterpart.

In a recent review of Kenneth Branagh's adaptation of Hamlet (America, May 17, 1997, p. 22), film critic Richard A. Blake noted that Shakespeare's play is one of "introspection," in which "a gifted actor on a bare stage speaking lines of unparalleled power and beauty opens the character's alternating spasms of confusion and resolve." Movies, Blake asserts, "don't do that type of soul-searching very well. Film is a medium of action, of epic scope and visual symbol. Words have their place, of course, but the dialogue must fit the images; and dialogue, even lengthy verbal exchanges, provides interludes to explain motivation for action."

So, too, with Terrence McNally's film adaptation of his own hit play. With one exception (TV star Jason Alexander, cast for his marquee value when Nathan Lane refused to participate in the project), the cast is the same as that on Broadway. Love! Valour! Compassion! (hereinafter LVC!) is not a play of action. While not as introspective as, say, Hamlet, and not as motionless as Waiting for Godot, it is essentially plotless. Things happen, to be sure, but only as a means to define and delineate the characters and their relationships.

The characters, in this case, are eight gay men who come together on the three major holiday weekends of the summer at the country home of Gregory Mitchell, a celebrated choreographer (Christopher Wilson at the Studio Theatre; Stephen Bogardus in the film). The concept sounds cliched -- after all, didn't Mart Crowley introduce this conceit in his pioneering 1968 play, The Boys in the Band? Well, yes and no. McNally is a writer with far more universal appeal than Crowley ever had. Contemporaries they might have been, but McNally has built upon Crowley's foundation to create a combination of pathos, tragicomedy, and humanity wholly free of the venomous bile that characterized The Boys in the Band.

The movie fails because McNally has -- for commercial reasons? -- truncated the expository elements of his characterizations that make the play so appealing. In the play, we are given information that clearly establishes the web of relationships among these men: John Jekyll (Kirk Jackson/Studio; John Glover/film, repeating his Tony-winning performance as both John and his twin brother, James) is Gregory's rehearsal pianist as well as a failed Broadway composer; Perry Sellars (John Emmert/Studio; Stephen Spinella/film) is Gregory's attorney; Buzz Hauser (Floyd King/Studio; Jason Alexander/film) is the costume maker for Gregory's dance company. Moreover, Buzz was once (14 years earlier) Perry's roommate who met John the same day that Perry met his longtime companion, Arthur Pape (Michael Russotto/Studio; John Benjamin Hickey/film). None of this -- except a passing reference to Perry's pro bono legal work -- is explained in the film.

These details are not disposable. Without knowledge of these interlocking relationships, the film audience remains puzzled about why these men have come together for their holiday weekends. Why do they know each other? What do they have in common? Why do they tolerate the mean-spirited John? Audiences at the Studio Theatre can answer these questions.

Gore Vidal once wrote that "A talent for drama is not a talent for writing, but is an ability to articulate human relationships." This is true of Terrence McNally, the playwright. It is not true of Terrence McNally, the screenwriter. (This was also evident in McNally's film adaptation of his play Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune, which was incomprehensible when performed on screen with Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer in the title roles.)

The centrality of character in this play becomes clear, too, when one contrasts the performances of Jason Alexander and his colleagues, who came to the film directly from Broadway. Their months of rehearsal, exploration, and performance as the characters they portray provided them with a substantial depth that Alexander lacks. Alexander, despite his admirable theatre experience, comes off as superficial. (Eight years on Seinfeld may have retrained him to go for the quick laugh, the 23-minute punch that weekly sitcoms demand.)

To a certain extent, this may be explained by what British critic John Berger meant when he said that "Theatre brings actors before a public and every night during the season they re-enact the same drama. Deep in the nature of theatre is a sense of ritual. The cinema, by contrast, transports its audience individually, singly, out of the theatre towards the unknown." Just as the relationships among the characters are much more strongly bonded in the stage play, the relationship between the characters and their audience is much stronger in the theatre than in the cinema. Theatregoers are required to participate much more in the stage production -- the barren stage induces them to use their imaginations. In contrast, the movie sets everything before the audience. For example, while Gregory's blind lover, Bobby Brahms (Sean Pratt/Studio; Justin Kirk/film) pantomimes his tactile exploration of the trees and flowers in the garden on stage, those trees and flowers are there, larger than life, on screen. When Bobby drops a milk bottle on stage, no prop is used but an off-stage sound effect alerts us to what happened; on film, the bottle and milk explode into myriad pieces. The lush realism of LVC! (the movie) detracts (and distracts) from the drama itself.

Here, then, is the irony: Movies require action to attract and retain their audience, which otherwise remains passive. Plays, being less action-oriented, require the audience to be active. The New Republic's longtime theatre critic, Robert Brustein, put his finger on this phenomenon when he noted: "Theatergoing is a communal act, moviegoing a solitary one." Few things are more dissatisfying than attending a live performance in an empty auditorium; being the sole member of a cinema audience is hardly ever disappointing.

In the end, LVC! on film fails for the same reasons it triumphs on stage. McNally's screen adaptation attempts, unsuccessfully, to impose a plot where none existed; to do this in two instead of three hours; and to sacrifice full understanding of each individual character before the (perceived) facile needs of a moviegoing public, assumed to be less sophisticated than the mavens of the Great White Way.

No one should endure this condescension. That is why we in the Washington area are so lucky -- we can take advantage of the Studio Theatre's excellent production of Love! Valour! Compassion! even as others across the country must settle for the inferior film version. This critic's advice: see the play now, while you can, and rent the video when it's released.
Love! Valour! Compassion! is not currently playing in Washington (2009) but Ragtime's run at the Kennedy Center has been extended through May 17.

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