Theater has long flaunted its cultural superiority over film, like a grand dowager in a room full of trophy wives. Yet the assumptions underlying the snobbery no longer seem tenable. With The Full Monty and Saturday Night Fever cheesing up Broadway, and independent filmmakers rivaling the best of Off-Broadway, who’s to say which art form has the edge in integrity and vision? While movies will forever be more sensitive to commercial pressures, the stage is by no means immune to the lure of star power. Take, for instance, the miscasting of Juliette Binoche in the Roundabout’s production of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal—a super-glamorous French gamine trying to palm herself off as a buttoned-up adulterous Brit. The Shuberts and their kind may have always been attracted to a “name,” but usually one whose acting chops went beyond an Oscar statuette.
Still, who can blame the theater for taking the occasional potshot at its glitzier cousin? Especially if it’s done with the old-school panache of Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman’s Stage Door, a serious comedy about a young woman resisting the temptation of Hollywood to realize her noble theatrical dreams. No matter that the film, starring Katharine Hepburn, outshines the play on which it’s based; there’s plenty of wit for savvy downtown thesps to chomp on. But most of all, Salt Theater’s revival affords the opportunity to see an emerging directing talent in the full sway of her passion for the stage.
The first thing you’ll notice about Emma Griffin’s auteurial style is her comfort with physical space. Her production fully exploits an awkward, pole-ridden black box. Transformed into the Footlights Club—a rooming house for Broadway understudies and leading lady wannabes—the playing area is divided into the common living room, an upstairs bedroom, and a visible backstage dressing area, where the young women function as a kind of chorus to the dramatic action. Between scene changes, actors gather around the piano to sing old standards like “All of Me” and “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love.” The unabashed desire to entertain connects Griffin’s 27-member cast with F&K’s showbiz-besotted characters—ensuring the audience’s goodwill even toward those performers who have trouble maintaining the stylized 1930s tone.
The story focuses on Terry (played with earnest charm by Christina Kirk), the best actress at Footlights and definitely the most serious. For all the disappointment she encounters, from abrupt closing notices to a playwright boyfriend who sells out, Terry maintains her belief that acting is “a spiritual thing, like being dedicated to the church.” This is in marked contrast to the rest of the women, whose hero is Jean (Billie James), the Footlights girl who becomes a Hollywood star. Given the tawdry living conditions and menial jobs most of them rely on to pay the rent, it’s no wonder they’re impressed by Jean’s furs and swarming publicity men. Yet Terry would rather continue hanging blouses at Macy’s than join her ex-roommate out on the coast. She may have grown thinner during her lean years, but she remains uncompromising.
Griffin obviously trusts the tale, never letting her directorial flourishes obstruct her storytelling. That poetic justice is eventually served—Terry lands the Broadway role Jean had been signed to play—seems only right given the extent of Terry’s hardship. The playwrights, however, don’t let her off so easily: Her theatrical future is far from guaranteed.
Who’d have thought F&K’s slightly clunky antique would have such contemporary resonance? The simplistic dichotomy between the legit stage and the silver screen may no longer hold, but the pursuit of artistic discipline in our ferocious economy has become an even tougher challenge. Griffin and her game cast provide hope that the journey toward excellence isn’t a thing of the past.
Y York’s Krisit at Primary Stages, on the other hand, is one of those plays about Hollywood that make you wish you were at home watching a movie. Nearly anything on the Blockbuster shelf would be an improvement on this feeble satire, which maintains an air of knowingness despite its galumphing ineptitude. Needless to say, failure on the level of character and plot (not to mention title!) should disqualify a writer from skewering a rival medium.
Titular heroine Krisit (a misuse of Scotty Bloch’s gravelly talent) soaks in a bathtub, presided over by her assistant Lulu (a role delivered in caps and exclamation points by Jessica Stone), an aspiring producer desperate to make the list of “the 50 most powerful people in Hollywood under 35.” A good portion of the first scene is devoted to the fact that the old movie queen has peed in the tub. From there the action spirals into a series of contrivances orchestrated by Lulu, who tries to get Krisit and her detested former director Peter (a wasted Larry Pine) to make a movie that will resuscitate their careers.
No reason to rehash the plot or stale jokes about tummy tucks and liposuction. Suffice it to say that the play, directed by Melia Bensussen, makes a much stronger case against itself than it does against film. One thing, however, remains perennially true: When theater’s bad, there’s nothing like it.