October 9, 2013

"The Film Socety" Fails to Enlist Me

--> Word of mouth has not been kind to The Film Society, the Keen Company’s revival of Jon Robin Baitz’s first play, now running at The Clurman Theater on Theater Row through Oct. 26.  And I’m afraid I have to join the chorus of naysayers.
It’s not the play’s fault.  Although it ran for just 33 days when it opened in 1988 with Nathan Lane in the lead role, The Film Society marked its then-26-year-old author as a playwright of great promise. Like Baitz’s later and better-known works The Substance of Fire and Other Desert Cities, it is filled with serious ideas, snappy dialog and passionate speeches. 

Baitz spent part of his boyhood in South Africa when his dad worked there in the ‘70s and, using an all-white private school as a stand-in for the country, The Film Society surveys the various ways in which whites responded to racial inequality during the apartheid era (click here to read an interview with the playwright). 

Nearly two decades have now passed since white rule ended in South Africa but, as the turbulent aftermath of the Arab Spring has shown, the question of what those in privilege do when confronted with the idea of giving up power remains a resonant one.

Or it would if the current production weren’t so lifeless. And it’s hard to figure out why it is because there are talented people involved, including the fine actors Euan Morton and Roberta Maxwell.

Morton, best known for his Tony-nominated portrayal of Boy George in the short-lived musical Taboo, steps into Lane’s old role as Jonathon, an apolitical history teacher whose main passions are old movies and his childhood friend Terry. A fellow teacher at the school, the married Terry is the kind of self-righteous radical who invites a black minister to speak to the students without considering the consequences. 

Both Morton and David Barlow who plays Terry work hard but they clearly need guidance and director Jonathan Silverstein hasn’t given it to them. One pivotal scene in which the fate of the black clergyman is revealed has been staged with less affect than is a debate over the merits of Orson Welles’ “The Third Man.”

The set is equally lackluster. And the costumes are just as ho-hum, except for one chic little black dress worn by Maxwell, who plays Jonathon’s overbearing mother. It looked more like an outfit that Donna Karan might design for her 2013 bridge line than one that a ‘70s-era South African matron would wear but I wanted to snatch it right off Maxwell’s back.

Silverstein greeted the audience at the beginning of the performance my theatergoing buddy Bill and I attended and said he would be in the lobby during intermission and at the end of the show if anyone wanted to chat.  He was there when Bill and I left at the end of the show but, having little kind to say, we looked away.  

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