Monday, January 27, 2020

The Forgettable and the Forgotten: We All Fall Down and Ivan Passer

Eleanor Reissa and Stephen Schnetzer in We All Fall Down. (Photo: Nile Hawver)

The Huntington Theatre Company’s commitment to producing new work is admirable, but is We All Fall Down, the Lila Rose Kaplan piece receiving its premiere at the Calderwood Pavilion, really the best script they could find? It’s a cutesy sitcom about an assimilated Jewish family holding its first Passover Seder in their Westchester home, and when, around the last third of the play, the broad jokiness more or less gives way and Kaplan finally reveals why the hell the matriarch, Linda (Eleanor Reissa), has gathered them and a couple of friends to honor a tradition she has never believed in, the tone simply shifts to melodrama. Yes, that’s right: this play is firmly in the I-laughed-I-cried genre. There isn’t a moment of authenticity in the entire ninety-five minutes.

There isn’t even a plausible moment; you can’t believe a single word of the plot or a single element of any of the characters. You don’t buy that Linda, a psychologist with a Ph.D., fails to understand the concept of GPS, or that her notion of how to dress for a Seder is to don the costume her elder daughter Sammi (Liba Vaynberg) wore in a middle-school production of Fiddler on the Roof. Or that almost everyone Linda has invited cancels moments before dinner. Or that their former neighbor, Beverly (Sarah Newhouse), one of the two non-Jews at the celebration, who lived in Westchester for decades, has managed to hold onto the misperception that Passover is a Jewish variation on Easter. Or that the other Gentile at the celebration, Linda’s research assistant Ester (Elle Borders), just happens to know Hebrew. Or that Sammi and her sister Ariel (Dana Stern) express their need to break away from Linda and their father Saul (Stephen Schnetzer) – Sammi runs a school in California, and Ariel, a yoga instructor working on getting certified, is planning to move to Bali for a year – by tearing up their old clothes, still hanging in an upstairs closet. And God knows you don’t buy Sammi’s brand of feminism, which consists mostly of lecturing her parents every time they refer to her and Ariel as their girls rather than their women.

Kaplan’s methodology for showing us that the members of the family are in a perpetual state of tension is to have everyone on stage behave so badly all the time that you want to throw cold water on all of them, including Saul’s sister Nan (Phyllis Kay), who doesn’t believe in religion so, after she shows up just to please Linda, she hides out in the bathroom. The production was directed by Malia Bensussen, but neither she nor her hard-working actors are to blame for what transpires on the stage.

A scene from Ivan Passer's Intimate Lighting (1965).

When the Czech √©migr√© filmmaker Ivan Passer died a couple of weeks ago, at the age of eighty-six, he hadn’t directed anything for a decade and a half. And considering that his first feature – the only one he made in Czechoslovakia before moving to Hollywood – was the highly regarded, now sadly forgotten, Intimate Lighting in 1965, it’s a bit of a shock to look at his imdb.com page and see how small his filmography is. He directed ten features in the U.S., five TV films (the last was an adaptation of William Inge’s Picnic) and one episode of Shelley Duvall’s short-lived series Faerie Tale Theatre, and I hadn’t heard of most of them.

The one that probably received the most critical attention was Cutter’s Way in 1983, a sort-of detective picture set, like Altman’s The Long Goodbye, among Southern-Californian aristocrats and co-starring John Heard, Jeff Bridges and Lisa Eichhorn. I’ve seen it several times over the years (the last when I wrote a profile of Bridges), I think because it’s so beautiful to look at and has some sequences that are so fine and so unusual in texture, that with each revisit I hope this time it will come together. Passer has such an original sensitivity and such a fresh eye, and he can be so intuitive with actors (though of the three leading actors, only Bridges feels right), that his gifts ought to add up to more than they do here. Eichhorn’s character, Mo, is unhappily married to Cutter (Heard), but she and her husband’s best friend Bone (Bridges) keep dancing around each other, and finally they wind up in bed. It’s a marvelous scene, like something from one of the memorable little offbeat pictures Americans made in the Vietnam War era. And there are other good moments, too, and an extraordinary, unsettling credits sequence where the eerie soundtrack music doesn’t sync up with the black-and-white images of Mexican dancers. Yet somehow the movie overall wastes these lovely elements.

The American movie of Passer’s I really like is his first, Born to Win, which came out in 1971. It’s about a junkie named J.J., played by George Segal, and the title, of course, is ironic: the character rushes around New York, sometimes with his friend and fellow addict Billy Dynamite (the charismatic Jay Fletcher), trying to score, but mostly he just lands in trouble and more trouble. He steals from the wrong people; he’s hounded and finally manipulated by the cops (one of whom is a very young, pre-Mean Streets Robert De Niro); he gets his innocent girlfriend (Karen Black) arrested. He has a wife, too (Paula Prentiss), also a druggie, who keeps herself in dope by turning tricks for a pimp named Geek (Hector Elizondo). Born to Win is unexpectedly funny, with scenes that might have come out of a chase comedy, but it’s also mournful, which may be why I kept having flashes of Buster Keaton while I was looking at it; it seems to have been conceived by a hipster Samuel Beckett (who loved Keaton and even worked with him). And Segal is brilliant; it comes from the brief period (1971 to 1974) when he gave one sensational performance after another, but it’s loosest he ever allowed himself to be, and I think it’s the highest of his high points. It’s hard to fathom how Passer made such a distinctively American story work his first time out, but then, he’s capturing a milieu so remote from most people’s experience that it’s practically rarefied. Born to Win is available on DVD but the print is so awful and the soundtrack is so muddy that you may have to fight the urge to turn it off in the first few minutes. Don’t do it.

And then there’s Intimate Lighting, the Czech New Wave film that put Passer on the map. It’s a Chekhovian comedy about a pair of musicians, old friends who get together for a concert in the small farm town where one of them, Kaja (Karel Blasek), has settled down with his wife (Jasolava Streda). Kaja, unlike his friend Peter (Zdenek Bezusek), no longer plays professionally; he runs a music school and performs in a local orchestra, and Peter is the guest artist he invites to participate in their annual concert. The film is about music and domestic life, and about the repercussions of the choices you make when you’re young and how you live with them and what you regret about them. It’s exquisite, in the understated, unforced way that Satyajit Ray’s movies can be, and it climaxes in one of those images you see very rarely on the screen that is so luminous and so emotionally overwhelming it feels as if you’re dreaming it: the two men go for a walk in the night mist with their instruments. If Passer had never made anything else, I think this movie – and especially this scene – would assure his place in movie history.

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 Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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