STAGE TO SCREEN: Languishing "Langrishe

News   STAGE TO SCREEN: Languishing "Langrishe Theater directors often find the delayed gratification of moviemaking a bit frustrating. If you're accustomed to seeing rehearsals lead directly into performances, the months devoted to post-production can seem endless.

Theater directors often find the delayed gratification of moviemaking a bit frustrating. If you're accustomed to seeing rehearsals lead directly into performances, the months devoted to post-production can seem endless.

But even as seasoned a director as David Jones ("Betrayal," Broadway's Taking Sides) would be forgiven for bristling at the lag time for his "latest" offering. "Langrishe, Go Down," a 1978 BBC telefilm that boasts a screenplay by Harold Pinter and a cast headed by Judi Dench and Jeremy Irons, will make its belated theatrical debut July 17 at New York’s Film Forum.

"It’s like a baby after a long disappearance," Jones says of the "Langrishe" reappearance. "I’ve always been sorry that it hasn’t been seen more."

Why the 24-year gestation period? Jones isn’t quite sure, but he thinks the fact that he came to New York shortly after filming "Langrishe" to become artistic director at the Brooklyn Academy of Music didn’t help matters. "Had I stayed in London, I might have pushed the BBC a bit more" for a theatrical release, he says.

By rights, Jones should never have become involved with "Langrishe," a languorous exploration of a tempestuous romance between a lonely woman of faded aristocratic origins (Dench) and a pedantic German scholar who’s living on her property (Irons) in 1930s Ireland. Jones, who had worked for the BBC as a documentarian earlier in his career, was lured back from the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1978 to produce the "Play of the Month" series; one project that caught his eye was an adaptation of the Aidan Higgins novel "Langrishe, Go Down" that producer Max Rosenberg had commissioned from playwright Harold Pinter years earlier. Pinter also had planned to direct—the screenplay was filled with his explicit camera directions—but by the time Jones contacted him about the project, Pinter's interest had cooled. He had originally hoped to direct his wife Vivian Merchant in the female lead, but their marriage had since broken up, so Jones decided to direct the project himself. He says he "trusted Harold’s instincts" while shooting "Langrishe," even though he largely ignored Pinter’s proposed camera instructions.

Jones did, however, talk Pinter into taking a small role in the telefilm, as a menacing drinking buddy. Jones, who acted in one of the very first productions of Pinter’s Birthday Party and has directed Pinter in the playwright’s own work several times, says the two have developed a formula. "There’s always a doppelganger in the room," he says, "which is the Harold that wrote the piece."

Jones, who has spent the last several years in the fast-paced world of television--he has directed several TV-movies, mostly for the Lifetime Network, and episodes for such series as "The Education of Max Bickford"--says he was surprised to find how deliberate the pace is in "Langrishe." "I look at it now, and I really admire the nerve I had then," he says. "I know now that I would be tempted to do more cuts and a faster pace. I think I could be slow and perhaps languid as a director then, and now I’m a lot punchier. But I do sometimes wish I still had that nerve."

Clearly, the last 24 years have been kind to the two lead performers. And Jones couldn’t be happier about it. "It’s a staggering performance," he says of Dench, whose career trajectory he compares to that of Peggy Ashcroft. "Judi was a dazzler when she was younger, and it’s a very daring, very witty performance." And he feels Irons was particularly well suited for the role of the pedantic seducer: "What’s marvelous about Jeremy is that he doesn’t mind playing shits."

In fact, Jones believes "Langrishe" was largely responsible for getting Irons cast in the film of "The French Lieutenant’s Woman." "[‘French Lieutenant’ director] Karel Reisz called me the day after ‘Langrishe’ aired and said, ‘Is that guy as good as I think he is?’ And I said, ‘Yes, he is.’" "Langrishe" also landed Jones perhaps his highest-profile film project, the acclaimed adaptation of Pinter’s "Betrayal," which also starred Irons.

Jones says he has a new idea for a theater piece, but it’s unclear what his next project will be. Max Rosenberg, who initiated the "Langrishe" project, holds the rights to an independent script that would be filmed in England, and Jones is also trying to interest HBO in a Richard Nelson script of a political nature.

His immediate concern, though, is getting "Langrishe, Go Down" in front of as big an audience as possible. He’s been in the business long enough to understand that a two-week run at Film Forum is just the beginning. "My huge ambition now would be to get it into video stores," he says, "not for financial reasons but to share the movie with people."

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When it rains, it pours. Opening just five days before "Langrishe, Go Down" is the long-awaited "Road to Perdition." I thought of devoting this column to Sam Mendes’s sophomore effort, which includes such familiar theatre faces as Dylan Baker, Stanley Tucci and even Kevin Chamberlin. After all, far more of you will have access to the thousands of screens showing it than you will to Film Forum.

My choice was based on two major criteria:

1) "Perdition" should be on screens far longer than "Langrishe," so time is more of the essence with the latter film. Along the same lines, "Langrishe" could use the press attention a lot more than "Perdition" can.

2) I haven’t gotten into a "Perdition" screening yet. However, I hope to have more on the film in time for next week’s column. In the meanwhile, PBS’s indispensable "Charlie Rose Show" is slated to have Mendes and several cast members on July 8.

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I must admit to being a bit underwhelmed at the news that Fox is preparing a 30th-anniversary TV presentation of "The Rocky Horror Show," which started life as a stage play before becoming perhaps the biggest cult film in history. As someone who spent many formative summers ushering at a movie theater that aired "Rocky" on midnights, I gained a not-terribly-flattering opinion of "Rocky." (I actually tore a ticket caked with vomit at one such screening.)

Yes, the recent revival was a lot more fun than I expected, thanks largely to Tom Hewitt and Dick Cavett. Yes, Fox has made a reputation for finding younger audiences. Still, the tentatively named "Rocky Horror Birthday Show"—due to air in February 2003 and include at least one new song by "Rocky" creator Richard O’Brien—sounds a bit tone-deaf to me. TV is hardly conducive to "Rocky's" now-obligatory audience participation: Wouldn’t you rather throw toilet paper all over someone else’s theater than your own home? And cult hits, by definition, don’t draw huge audiences; the communal nature of "Rocky" will probably result in fans congregating at houses, which translates into fewer individual sets watching it and, therefore, lower ratings. I’m all for seeing stage properties get a wider audience, particularly in innovative formats, but something tells me this ain’t it.

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Your Thoughts: Which do you prefer: Harold Pinter the playwright, Harold Pinter the screenwriter, Harold Pinter the director or Harold Pinter the actor? Please defend your answer. And are you interested in a TV "Rocky Horror Show"?

Eric Grode is New York bureau chief of Show Music magazine, assistant editor of The Sondheim Review and a theatre critic for Back Stage.