STAGE TO SCREEN: "In Celebration" and Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding

Stage to Screens   STAGE TO SCREEN: "In Celebration" and Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding I’m holding off on my 2003 review/2004 preview until after the new year. However, I did want to mention the Sundance Film Festival’s 2004 slate of titles.
Prisiclla Lopez of Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding, the film version, and Broadway's Anna in the Tropics
Prisiclla Lopez of Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding, the film version, and Broadway's Anna in the Tropics

As reported in Playbill On-Line, two particular titles leap out as worthy of theatregoers’ attention. The first one, "Marie and Bruce," has been discussed in this column before. The adaptation of Wallace Shawn’s caustic marriage play stars Matthew Broderick and Julianne Moore, as well as two veterans of the original Off-Broadway production: Bob Balaban and Griffin Dunne.

The other one came as a bit more of a shock. Jose Rivera, who has generated a sizable body of work at the major Off-Broadway houses, makes his film directing debut with "The Motorcycle Diaries." He’s best known for such fanciful, apocalyptic works as Cloud Tectonics and Marisol, not to mention the similarly spooky TV series "Eerie, Indiana," but this one sounds more straightforward. It’s based on the journals of countercultural icon Che Guevara.

The Sundance Film Festival, which has awarded such titles as "You Can Count on Me" and "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" in recent years, runs from January 15 to 25 in Park City, Utah.

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One indie film that you won’t find at Sundance is "Tony ’n’ Tina’s Wedding," based on the ridiculously long-running Off-Broadway comedy. I had no idea that this was headed to the big screen until I read in Priscilla Lopez’s Playbill bio for Anna in the Tropics that it recently finished filming. Full disclosure: I’ve never made it to Tony 'n’ Tina during its 16-years-and-counting run. (It took a few moths off this summer but has been running nonstop other than that.) But from everything I hear, the entire narrative thrust of the play hinges on constant interaction between the performers and the "wedding guests" (i.e., the audience). How do you replicate this on film?

Lopez says director/screenwriter Roger Paradiso has kept the feel of verisimilitude through a pretty clever idea: The film is told from the point of view of the wedding videographer, who records the blessed event and all the unholy goings-on around it on his video camera, verite-style. (Sort of a "Blair Hitch Project.")

The Tony Award-winning Lopez plays Josie Vitale, the volatile mother of the bride. (Mila Kunis of "That ’70s Show" is Tina; former New Kid on the Block Joseph McIntyre is Tony.) "I had a lot of fun with Josie," she says. "She’s a little steamroller—very vocal, very physical, very out there."

Lopez went immediately from shooting "Tony ’n’ Tina" to the Princeton, New Jersey, engagement of Anna. But Lopez says she had no problem switching from Josie to Ofelia, the imposing matriarch of Nilo Cruz’s delicate nostalgia play. "Basically, they’re both very strong women. Certainly, Ofelia is not the same woman as Josie in terms of outward demeanor, but where they come from internally is not that far off."

And did the on-screen performers have the same kind of leeway as the stage actors? "It was scripted, but we had flexibility," she says of the film, which is currently searching for a distributor. "It wasn’t like we improvised entire scenes, but there was freedom."

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It may have averaged just under 35 percent attendance over its last three weeks on Broadway, but Arthur Allan Seidelman has bigger and better things in mind for Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks. The play’s director and coproducer actually told The New York Times that Six Dance Lessons, described by the Times’s own Bruce Weber as "the most dismissible entry on Broadway of the last few seasons," is destined for the big screen. Universal has bought the rights, he said, and "the play will go on."

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As you’ll see below, reader response came out overwhelmingly in support of American Film Theatre releases. These titles clearly left a strong impression on a lot of people, especially ones who lived in areas that didn’t get much in the way of experimental fare, so Kino (the distributor) has provided me with the other two sets. I’ve decided to continue going through them set by set.

Having just seen Pinter’s The Caretaker, I thought about starting Box 2 with "The Homecoming." But I finally opted for David Storey’s "In Celebration," mostly because it was the only title in the set that I’ve never seen on stage. (The others are "The Three Sisters," "The Man in the Glass Booth" and "A Delicate Balance.") In fact, I’ve never seen any of Storey’s works, nor have I heard of his works ever being revived. My only exposure to him at all is from a Fireside Theatre anthology of British plays that I’ve had on my shelf forever and that includes The Changing Room. (I never got in the habit of calling Fireside by its new name, and it’s a moot point now that QPB has swallowed the book company. So Fireside it is.)

"In Celebration" uses a scenario that will be more than a little familiar to Eugene O’Neill fans: The film chronicles the alcohol-induced unraveling of long-buried family truths, including a resentful mother in a house full of boys and even the specter of a dead, idealized child, over the course of a long day. It throws an additional son into the mix and ends with the possibility of reconciliation with the mother, but the similarities to Long Day’s Journey Into Night are shocking.

If you can look past these common themes, though, "In Celebration" packs plenty of punch of its own. Director Lindsay Anderson moves the five family members seamlessly through their grubby Nottingham home, and your sympathies bounce around among at least four of them. (The "extra" brother, a bourgeois labor negotiator, is a bit of an easy victim.)

All six cast members—there’s also a busybody neighbor—recreate their roles from the 1969 debut production at London’s Royal Court, and the comfort level shows. Brian Cox, who looks a bit like a pockmarked Marlon Brando here, is haunting as the favorite son doomed for misery. The real draw for most viewers, I suspect, will be Alan Bates as the oldest brother. His role—the cynical, slightly fey, smirking truth teller with unkempt hair—takes many cues from his role in "Butley," which AFT filmed prior to this offering. And, as with "Butley," Bates appears at times to be acting more for the back row than for the camera. But "In Celebration" is a high-quality entry that has piqued my interest in seeing more works of Storey’s.

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Cutting-Room Floor: I had some problems with the Ed Norton-Catherine Keener revival of Burn This, but now that I’ve seen "Shattered Glass," I really wish I had gone back to see Norton’s replacement, Peter Sarsgaard. He’s terrific as Stephen Glass’s editor, and now that I think about it, I also really liked him in "Boys Don’t Cry." (He was the more dominant of the two bad guys.) Did any of you see him in Burn This? The guy’s got real skills. . . . Fans of theatrical grandes dames will have plenty to keep them busy over the holidays. Look for Lynn Redgrave in the remake of "Peter Pan" and Eileen Atkins in "Cold Mountain" (both opening Christmas Day). And Marian Seldes, who constantly finds work on the New York stage and still manages to appear in every other press gathering and awards ceremony, has found time to do a movie, too. She has a small part in "Mona Lisa Smile" (Dec. 19).

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My Favorite Thought: Lots of responses about American Film Theatre and lots of responses about the "Sweeney Todd" film with or without Tim Burton. I’ve culled two sample responses on each topic: First up: the AFT series. Here are Randy and Peter’s takes, respectively:

"I'd very much like to see you continue reviewing the American Film Theatre DVDs. They're a mixed bag (you're right about ‘Rhinoceros’; between O'Horgan's direction and the stars' mugging, it's virtually unwatchable), but they contain many pleasures, and I'm sure your reviews are helping to bring them a new audience. I have fond memories of seeing them in their original release in my hometown of Johnson City, Tennessee, a small burg with a local college; one bought season subscriptions, just like theater, and they showed for four performances, two matinees, two evenings. A friend and I were the only subscribers for the second year's Wednesday matinees, so the two of us sat and had a screening room experience in an empty theater!"

And now Peter’s:

"I say continue on with the reviews of the AFT presentations—especially if it will help bring this series to the attention of readers/public in general. This series was a noble experiment that unfortunately was not able to be continued. Think you will be floored by ‘The Homecoming’—the cast is incredible. How often do you get to see the incomparable Vivien Merchant, aka Mrs. H.P.? Plus Ian Holm—an actor's actor. The entire cast is as good as it gets. The whole thing is a lesson in the art of presenting Pinter's work."

Now for the "Sweeney" letters. Two different Jons had interesting things to say about the project, one from New York City and one from Chicago. Here’s NYC John:

"I have difficulty explaining my ideas about a ‘Sweeney’ movie without getting beaten for them. I feel very strongly that Brechtian techniques don't work on film (aside from the glorious Branagh ‘Henry V’) and that a chorus of commentators especially doesn't work (see the embarrassing singing street urchins in the film of ‘Little Shop’). I think that in order to work cinematically, the show must be shorn of the ‘Ballads of Sweeney Todd.’ They don't move the plot forward, they don't convey character, they don't get laughs. They’re dead weight on a movie screen and musically not that much a part of the fabric of the show. (Before people complain, yes, it's a bookend, but no, it's not necessary.) I think a straight, direct telling of the show, shorn of faux social importance, would be great. It's a thrilling little tawdry melodrama with a pitch-perfect score. And there's nothing wrong with that. Musical depth aside, I just don't think it's this deep, reverent show at heart."

Chicago Jon was more interested in the idea of who’ll direct it:

"I do not think Tim Burton is the right choice at all to bring ‘Sweeney Todd’ to the screen. Perhaps I'm the only one to have this opinion: Many others think it a perfect match. I can understand how Burton's dark, gothic sensibilities would seem to be the best mate for Sondheim's show. However, I would be concerned that Burton would be out to Burtonize the story rather than make it a feasible musical evening. I'm sure his production design would be crammed with dark, spindly buildings and dung filled streets, consumptive prostitutes and crossing sweepers with rotting teeth. I fear the film would be all atmosphere and angst and irony rather than making the story ‘musical.’ Burton would be far better off directing an adaptation of Bond's original drama than the Sondheim/Wheeler version.

"I vote for Sam Mendes. He has stage experience and period experience (the production design for ‘Road to Perdition’ was perfect but didn't overburden the story) and is a ‘hot’ director who could bring the project to fruition. He might even be in generally good standing with Sondheim after the Gypsy revival.

"If Burton were to get his hands on a Sondheim piece, I suggest ‘Anyone Can Whistle.’ That sort of nuthouse zaniness would be just the sort of carnival atmosphere we need to see from Burton again after such a long stretch since the madness of ‘Pee Wee’s Big Adventure,’ ‘Beetlejuice’ and ‘Batman Returns.’"

Your Thoughts: Will "Tony and Tina’s Wedding" work in a naturalistic, audience-free setting? And in honor of Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, what infamous straight-play flop would you most like to see on the big screen? Just to make it interesting, Moose Murders is off-limits.

Eric Grode is a 2002-2003 American Theatre Affiliated Writer, associate editor of The Sondheim Review and a theatre critic for Back Stage. He can be reached at egrode@hotmail.com.

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