Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 cult film The Conversation memorably dramatizes the rather uncinematic topic of listening. While the main plot events unfold slowly and usually off-screen, professional eavesdropper Harry Caul is tormented by his responsibility for the violence that ensues from his mercenary snooping. Today, as warrantless surveillance becomes government policy, Coppola’s story compels more than ever.
Kate Harris’s faithful adaptation (which premiered in 2005 in Chicago) successfully condenses the screenplay into stageable intimate scenes. But Leo Farley’s production struggles to make all this disaffected 1970s inaction watchable. Awkwardly cramped blocking and confusing delineation of areas (better lighting might have helped) keep reminding you that this material was really meant to be filmed. Staging a movie whose appeal is arguably 90 percent atmospheric requires a much more imaginative mise-en-scène of its own, even within 29th Street Rep’s understandably limited budget.
David Mogentale’s low-key performance effectively embodies Caul’s orneriness and pent-up physicality, even if it can’t compete with what Coppola’s camera mined from just Gene Hackman’s eerily impassive face. (Kudos to costumer Rebecca Ming for tracking down a replica of Hackman’s trademark plastic raincoat!) The production does deliver the skin-crawling goods at the creepy climax, but fails to make the material uniquely theatrical enough throughout to justify the need for adaptation. If the film were lost, this production would serve as an adequate reconstruction, especially at $20 a ticket. But in the age of Netflix, alas, the endeavor seems superfluous.