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Theatre in Review: Terms of Endearment (59E59)/Dead Poets Society (CSC)

Top: Jason Sudeikis in Dead Poets Society. Photo: Joan Marcus. Bottom: Hannah Dunne in Terms of Endearment. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

I don't often combine two productions in a single review, but when stage adaptations of popular films open one after the other, they provide the perfect raison d'ĂȘtre for a critical double feature -- especially because both make the same irrefutable point: If you're going to transfer a property from screen to stage, you've got to make it into a play.

I surely can't be the first person to point this out, but the news seems not to have filtered down to the creative teams of Terms of Endearment and Dead Poets Society. In neither case has anyone taken measure of what a film can do brilliantly and figured out how to translate those unique qualities into specifically theatrical terms. One is more gracefully staged than the other, but neither production makes a solid case for why its source material wants to be seen in a live theatre format.

The more awkward of the two is Terms of Endearment, which, as adapted by Dan Gordon, is little more than a scrapbook of scenes from a beloved film. The program says Gordon has drawn on Larry McMurtry's novel and James L. Brooks' screenplay, but its structure has seemingly been borrowed from the latter. It's a screenplay for the stage, built out of short scenes that often last less than a minute and are separated by pauses that are nearly as long for costume changes and rearrangements of furniture. Very few, if any, scenes end with any kind of a "button" or climax; more often than not, they simply trail off. You can get away with this in a film, through artful editing; onstage, it is living death.

And Terms of Endearment needs all the enlivening it can get, because the play's narrative is, thanks to its source material, a rambling and -- until the end -- undramatic tale spanning many years in the lives of Aurora Greenway, a difficult, controlling Houston matron, and Emma, her daughter, who rebels largely by being nothing like her mother. Men come and go -- Aurora is a widow, though she seems not to have given her husband's death a second thought -- but the mother-daughter bond is, for better or worse, forever. The film is a cannily constructed tearjerker, following their ups and downs as both pursue relationships with weak, unreliable men -- Emma in her marriage to Flap Horton, a lazy, second-rate academic, and Aurora in her on-and-off romance with Garrett Breedlove, an aging ex-astronaut and leering, middle-aged satyr with an eye for empty-headed female twentysomethings. Despite everything, Aurora remains implacable, issuing one dictate after another to her daughter in their daily phone calls, until Emma is diagnosed with cancer -- the one development for which Aurora is not prepared.

Gordon's script settles for being a collection of highlights from the film: Aurora standing over Emma in her crib, pinching her awake; Aurora telling Emma she isn't "special enough to overcome a bad marriage;" Emma, before her wedding, telling Aurora, "That's the first time I stopped hugging before you. I like that;" Aurora freaking out about the prospect of grandmotherhood; Aurora melting down in the hospital, terrorizing a nurse who isn't instantly prepared to dispense Emma's painkiller. But what works in the film is often painfully limp here, thanks to the disjointed structure, the aimless pacing of Michael Parva's direction, and the fact that Shirley MacLaine, Jack Nicholson, and Debra Winger are missing in action.

This is nothing against the cast that has been assembled at 59E59: As Aurora, Molly Ringwald, elaborately made-up and coiffed at all times, manages to be amusingly imperious even in a peignoir, inviting a lover into her bed for the first time in decades. (Aurora's oddball crush on the conductor André Previn is the kind of telling character detail the script could use more of.) Hannah Dunne has a nice throwaway charm as Emma, forging ahead with her disappointing life with little expectation of its ever improving. And Jeb Brown sticks out his gut and leers in the approved Nicholson manner as Garrett, who can neither commit to, nor let go of, Aurora. All are solid professionals -- Brown long ago proved his stage chops and I'd enjoy seeing Ringwald and Dunne under other circumstances -- but they're competing with our memories of two screen legends and an intelligent young actress who knew exactly how to play against her character's drearily passive nature. And they aren't getting any help from their director.

The rest of the production -- including David L. Arsenault's set, which is divided into several playing areas; Michael McDonald's costumes (including Aurora's '80s-era Texas-chic ensembles); Graham Kindred's lighting; and Quentin Chiappetta's sound, which mixes tracks of Ella Fitzgerald singing "Let's Do It" and Ethel Merman's version of "Anything Goes" with such effects as passing cars, splashing water, and ambient hospital sounds -- is also fine enough. The audience at the performance I attended certainly seemed to have a good time, but I couldn't help thinking that they could all be at home, seeing the film and enjoying themselves even more.

Over at Classic Stage Company, John Doyle has done a number of things right by Dead Poets Society. For one thing, he has obtained a simple unit set from Scott Pask that establishes the location -- a New England prep school -- without requiring endless, tedious scene changes. This allows Doyle -- admittedly, a master of seamless staging -- to achieve a continuous flow of action. Doyle has also dropped his most vexing mannerism, his tendency to have his actors deliver their lines looking out at the audience; here actors face their scene partners, to fine dramatic effect.

Doyle has also recognized that there can be no substitute for Robin Williams, who enjoyed one of his signature successes as John Keating, the literature professor who makes it his business to shake his young students out of their haute-WASP complacency and philistine cultural attitudes. Instead, the director has cast Jason Sudeikis, himself a skilled -- if very different -- comic actor. Sudeikis' program bio lists no theatre credits, but he's a natural for the stage: Whether informing his students that, at their age, he was "the intellectual equivalent of an inebriated rodent," demanding that they refer to him as "O Captain, My Captain" (Whitman is his favorite poet), or instructing them to tear an offending preface from their poetry textbooks, his Keating is exactly the cheerful, troublemaking presence the script demands.

Doyle has also harvested a bumper crop of fresh talent to play Keating's students, who suddenly find themselves developing tastes for poetry, romance, and questioning authority. They are William Hochman, Cody Kostro, Yaron Lotan, Thomas Mann, Zane Pais, and Bubba Weiler, and they inhabit their characters with such ease that you'd believe they'd just been airlifted in from Groton or Deerfield Academy. If Pais, who plays the most troubled of the crew -- struggling with a stutter and the reputation of the brother who proceeded him -- made the strongest impression on me, it's no doubt because I've seen him before. But you're going to be seeing the others again and again; the same goes for Francesca Carpanini as a local girl who is at first bemused, then rather excited, to become the object of one of the boys' affection (Hochman).

All of this begs the question of why Doyle has chosen Dead Poets Society at all. The adaptation, by Tom Schulman (who wrote the screenplay), moves well, but, lacking the film's visual texture, is a thin and sentimental melodrama. There isn't a hint of character shading anywhere, which is especially damaging to David Garrison, who tut-tuts and administers corporal punishment with his belt as the mean-spirited headmaster, and Stephen Barker Turner as a parent who has a conniption fit over his son (Mann) playing Puck in a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. That Keating's class appears to consist of Horsing Around 101 doesn't help us believe that it inspires the students to fall in love with Romantic poetry. The play never questions Keating's motivations or the recklessness of his behavior, which indirectly leads to a student's suicide; he remains sanctified throughout, right up to the finale, which, in the film, worked just barely, but on stage looks like a naked bid for audience tears.

The finale only confirms what many have noted, that, given its reverence for rebellion and the primacy of the individual, Dead Poets Society is an awfully square piece of writing. (I wonder how a skilled playwright who knowns the territory, such as A. R. Gurney, would treat this scenario.) The rest of the production, including Ann Hould-Ward's costumes, Japhy Weideman's lighting, and Matt Stine's sound, are all first-rate. And, once again, the audience at the performance I attended seemed more than happy. But is this sort of warmed-over movie script really the best use of a major Off Broadway theatre?

The question isn't going away. Last season, we had an awkward adaptation of the film Misery, which at least allowed Laurie Metcalf a memorable star turn, and Stephen Adly Guirgis is reportedly adapting Dog Day Afternoon for the stage. If this is the future, so be it -- but can we have a little more invention, please? -- David Barbour

(18 November 2016)

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