I belong to an organization called The International Association of Media Tie-In Writers (IAMTW); it’s dedicated to the premise that, in the professional realm of licensed merchandising, writing, say, an original novel based on a TV show, or the novelization of a film script, or some other work of that nature, is no less legitimate than adaptation or development that goes in the opposite direction; say, from novel to film, or from play to musical. It requires a skill set just as dignified, and as for its worth as literature…well, your mileage will vary, as with any kind of writing. A hack will do a hack job, an artist will do a brilliant job, and there’s no pre-judging who will be whom: a seasoned pulpsmith is as likely to spin out a classic as a brand-name, moonlighting for the money, is to phone it in.
All of which I was reminded of, watching two new plays—straight plays, not musicals—based on films. A whole other kind of licensed tie-in writing.
Now it may surprise you to learn that plays adapting films and TV shows to the stage do not constitute a rare subgenre: they go back decades. But for the most part, rather like tie-in novelizations, these plays have been the work of writers for hire, under commission of a dramatic licensing service, which then promotes the scripts to mostly schools, plus community and amateur groups, because the brand-name familiarity sells, and such groups understandably enjoy donning the mantles of famous characters from popular media.
But it’s not such a bad proposition for first-tier production either. As musical theatre has often demonstrated, there’s an endless number of iconic film roles, just as rich and playable as the great roles of the stage, that are worthy of reinterpretation by other actors (Max Biallystock and Leo Bloom, anyone?);but why should such adaptation be limited only to musicals and properties that can withstand musicalization? Enter two contenders:
The chick-flick comedy-drama laugher-weeper Terms of Endearment, based on the novel by Larry McMurtry, screenplay by James L. Brooks, is built for theatricalization: a character study about a charismatic mother (Shirley MacLaine), her less showy daughter (Debra Winger), and the two respective men in their lives—the mothers lover (Jack Nicholson), the daughter’s husband (Jeff Daniels)—and how they all have to cope when the spectre of fatal illness looms, it has big, juicy roles to be redefined by new actors.
The good news: the NY debut of the play version at 59E59 has actors of sufficient wattage in the showier roles: Molly Ringwald makes a fine and feisty Aurora, and Jeb Brown as the felicitously named playboy astronaut Garrett Breedlove has the requisite swagger and eccentricity to be her match. If Hannah Dunne as daughter Emma and Denver Milord as her hapless husband Flap Horton don’t quite put the same kind of imprint on their roles, the roles are also less showy, and no harm, is done.
Alas, the adaptation by Dan Gordon, and the direction by Michael Parva come off as utility work; the experience feels as if a community theatre staging had been taken over by seasoned professional actors, so there’s an odd dyssynchrony between the level of acting, which is high; the level of the adaptation, which seems only an uninspired conversion, with no endemic theatricality on which to hang its own definition; and the level of production: there a decent dramaturgical conceit that makes a bed (in whatever locale) the centerpiece of every scene, but it’s diminished by a dull design and no-frills traffic management staging, including conspicuous blackout-and-reset pauses to canned music between scenes. It’s not dull, and it’s nobody’s failure: the story is told cleanly enough to move you, but never enough to rock you, as it should; so on the whole the enterprise just doesn’t feel necessary.
By contrast, the adaptation of Dead Poets Society by its original screenwriter, Tom Schulman, is an arresting transposition, stripped down and starkly theatrical, in the typical signature style of director John Doyle. The story itself is a well-worn trope—renegade enters staid establishment, makes a difference to those “inmates” who might have had their spirits forever stifled, and is then forced out, leaving behind him a legacy of self-respect and a desire to keep improving the system. In this case, the renegade is English Literature teacher John Keating, entering Welton Academy, a conservative New England boarding school for boys, in the year 1959.
The set is both literal and symbolic, a large, open wooden floor leading to a high academic bookshelf. The books taken from it are used as books, but also as set pieces (an encyclopedic pile becomes a classroom chair) and often at the same time. The fluidity keeps the story moving without pause, and the omnipresence of the physical set keeps the school as the unifying locale, even when we are clearly elsewhere. This alone, right from the start, immediately sets it apart from the film, and so assertively that the process of making mental comparisons as you go is halted before it can really begin.
Paradoxically, though, I will say that comedian-actor Jason Sudaikis has the requisite charisma, the uniqueness of persona and the necessary command of his “funny” to be a more-than-worthy successor to Robin Williams of the film, without being anywhere near Williams’ shadow or perceptibly beholden. The rest of the cast, of course, draws their own uniqueness from him as the core, with the opposing force being represented by the coolly conventional steel of David Garrison’s Headmaster Nolan.
Necessity shines forth from this one proudly, in 90 sleekly delivered, involving and intermissionless minutes. If films turned into plays is to be a thriving subgenre, the kind of reimagining by this production might well be the standard of measure.