Monday, November 2, 2015

Nut Cases: Rear Window and Choice

McKinley Belcher III and Kevin Bacon in Rear Window at Connecticut's Hartford Stage.

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 Rear Window is gripping and playful in equal parts. It puts us solidly on the side of a voyeur, “Jeff” Jefferies (Jimmy Stewart), who – amusing himself while laid up with a broken leg by peering at his neighbors across the courtyard through a pair of binoculars – determines that one of them (Raymond Burr) has murdered his wife and disposed of the body somehow, and nearly gets himself and his girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) killed trying to uncover the evidence. Jeff and Lisa and Jeff’s part-time nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) follow the lives of the people across the way, watching them as if they were characters in a play. The set design by Joseph McMillan Johnson and Hal Pereira is like an advent calendar revealing the honeymooners, the quarreling couple, the struggling songwriter, the perky, exercising young woman with a raft of suitors, and Jeff’s favorite, an increasingly desperate spinster whom he nicknames Miss Lonelyhearts. So it’s easy to see why a playwright might want to convert the ingenious John Michael Hayes script (out of a Cornell Woolrich short story) into an actual stage play.

But the theatrical nature of the movie isn’t, apparently, what interested Keith Reddin, whose adaptation, currently playing a sold-out run at Hartford Stage, doesn’t bother with the lives of any of the neighbors except the possible murderer, Thorwald (Robert Stanton). Nine actors play the others, identified in the program by their apartment numbers, but all they do is hang out on Alexander Dodge’s set; they have no distinguishing features (and no lines). Woolrich’s story and not Hayes’s script is listed as the source material, and though I haven’t read it, I doubt that most of what transpires in the course of the play was dreamed up by Woolrich. This Rear Window, directed by Hartford Stage artistic director Darjo Tresnjak, is a social-problem melodrama with heavy Freudian overtones, and the narrative is lunatic. Jeff (Kevin Bacon) is a muckraking journalist. He sustained his injury when he was beaten up after he wrote a story protesting that a young black man sent to the electric chair down south for the murder of two white girls was railroaded by racist law enforcement officials and a racist jury. The caregiver he hires is another young black man named Sam (McKinley Belcher III), a transplanted southerner who talks his way into the job because he hero-worships Jeff. But Jeff has become disheartened and cynical and he’s trying to drink away his memories of the wife who left him. His obsession with proving that Thorwald killed his wife is somehow mixed up with his regrets over losing his own: both women are played by the same actress, Melinda Page Hamilton, in vignettes in which, as emanations of his feverish imagination, they commune with him. (So does Thorwald.) Then there’s Jeff’s cop friend Boyne (John Bedford Lloyd), who practically foams at the mouth with anticipation of the brutality he plans to visit on Sam when the boy inevitably runs afoul of the law. And I forgot to mention the intimations of homoeroticism in the relationship between Jeff and Sam.

All the actors try hard, but even Bacon, one of the most reliable character actors of his generation, can’t do much with what Reddin has given him. He gets farther than Lloyd, who’s playing a ridiculous caricature of a racist villain, or Stanton and Hamilton, whose roles are barely written at all, or Belcher, whose character doesn’t even begin to make sense. The play is set in 1947, but Sam acts like a twenty-first-century African American who somehow found himself transported back in time; he says he lives in fear of what white men can do to him, but he practically spits in Boyne’s face.

The play’s real star is Alexander Dodge, whose design is an absolute knockout. At first Jeff eavesdrops on his neighbors through windows in a standard box set, but then suddenly the walls fly up and we see the entire back of the building across the way in intricate detail. It’s a pity that Reddin’s script finds so little use for all the layers and alcoves.

Johanna Day and Raviv Ullman in Choice at Boston's Huntington Theatre Company. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Choice, a new play produced by Huntington Theatre Company in its second home at the Calderwood Pavilion in Boston’s South End, is an attempt by a feminist writer, Winnie Holzman (best known for the book of the hit musical Wicked and the TV series My So-Called Life, which was short-lived but attracted a kind of cult following), to address the long-term fallout of the pro-choice position. Considering the enduring sensitivity of the debate and the significance of choice for the history of the women’s movement, you have to admire Holzman for writing a play that deals with the lingering second thoughts of a strong feminist protagonist – a Vanity Fair journalist with the ridiculous name Zippy Zunder (played by Johanna Day) – who had an abortion in her youth. And it contains one remarkable scene, in the second act. Zippy (for Zipporah) has interviewed a movie producer who subscribes to the theory that aborted fetuses can return as fully-formed human beings. Her best friend Erica (Connie Ray), a journalism professor, gleefully anticipates the hatchet job Zippy is going to do on this woman (who remains offstage during the play), but instead, to her own surprise, Zippy decides the producer is sincere and considers the possibility that the theory is valid. When she asks Erica to read the article in manuscript, Erica gets furious because in her mind Zippy’s even raising the question is a betrayal. The scene is the exchange between them that presages the end of their friendship, and the way Holzman depicts the resentment of a woman who has so defined herself by her sexual politics that she can’t permit her closest friend to voice a doubt – a woman for whom choice is so staunch a principle that anyone who wavers is a traitor – is fascinating.

But couldn’t Holzman have found a way to dramatize this idea that doesn’t sound like something out of a bad horror movie? The plot (which also makes allusions to an apparently supernatural cat) is risible, and that’s not the only problem with the play. The dialogue sometimes sounds like it was thought up for a sitcom. And in the second act the two women meet an old boyfriend of Zippy’s for lunch, Mark (Ken Cheeseman), who was the father of the aborted child and whom Zippy hasn’t seen in the intervening couple of decades. He’s had a stroke, which Holzman renders in broad jokes that belong in an SNL sketch – or perhaps in one of Christopher Durang’s absurdist comedies, but Holzman isn’t Durang, whose style is unmistakable and who is a master of the mixed tone. The elements of the play are at so much at odds with each other that, instead of being moving (which is clearly the intention), it just seems nutty.

Whatever style Holzman was going for, the director, Sheryl Kaller, hasn’t found it. The acting is a mixed bag, too. Johanna Day, Munson Hicks as her aging writer husband and Madeline Wise as their daughter, a recent college grad, are the most successful, and Cheeseman (who also plays Erica’s latest suitor, another man named Mark) is pretty funny. Connie Ray works hard but she’s too frantic, and Raviv Ullman as the young student in Erica’s class who talks his way into a job as Zippy’s assistant looks physically uncomfortable in the role. The show is an earnest failure.
– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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