STAGE TO SCREEN: "OT: Our Town" and Rudnick On Film

News   STAGE TO SCREEN: "OT: Our Town" and Rudnick On Film A documentary about a high school production of Our Town. Hardly sounds like essential viewing, does it?
Poster for
Poster for "OT: Our Town."

Except Dominguez High School, located in the infamous Compton section of Los Angeles, isn’t your typical high school. And "OT: Our Town," Scott Hamilton Kennedy’s heart-tugging look at Dominguez’s first school play in more than 20 years, isn’t your typical documentary.

The students of Dominguez may hardly bat an eye at the sound of nearby gunfire, but when it comes time for George and Emily to kiss, the two actors are as skittish and awkward as any two adolescents from anywhere. Footage from the 1977 TV-movie of "Our Town" underscores the differences between Grovers Corners and Compton at first. But by the end of this moving and insightful film, the two towns don’t seem so far apart, after all.

Like most people, Kennedy formed his opinion of Compton, in part, based on "Boyz N the Hood" and rap albums. "I grew up in Berkeley and Oakland," he says, "and I heard the same clichés as everyone else." It wasn’t until he met Catherine Borek, a Teach for America volunteer who decided to stay at Dominguez, that he learned about the plans to mount Our Town. Shortly thereafter, Kennedy arrived at the school with his camera.

"Her bringing me in sort of gave me the seal of approval," Kennedy says of Borek, who codirected the play with Karen Greene. (He and Borek were, and still are, dating.) "Some of the kids acted like I was covering them for ‘MTV Cribs,’ while others really warmed to what I was doing.

"One of the joys of editing the film was that I got to tell the story in two different styles," Kennedy says. The first narrative thread, the mounting of the play, unfolds in a way that will be familiar to anyone who has seen a 'let’s put on a show!' movie. Kennedy was especially excited about the sequences he calls "Our Town, Their Town," in which the students relate the play’s themes and ideas to their own lives. A kid who has survived at least one suicide attempt describes how he identifies with his character’s bitterness and loneliness, while the student who plays Emily’s father discusses the absence of a father figure in his own life. It isn’t giving too much away to say that the school pulls it off. (Dominguez has since produced three more plays, most recently Inherit the Wind.) What does come as a surprise is the extent to which these kids embrace the ideas and characters of Our Town as their own. As one kid gleefully shouts to the camera, "Our Town is ghetto!"

I wouldn’t go quite that far, but "OT" demonstrates with profound clarity how Compton and Grovers Corners are each part of our complicated, hopeful town.

(Note: "OT: Our Town" is currently showing in just six cities. However, it is also available through an interesting new service called Film Movement, which releases worthwhile independent films on DVD and in theatres simultaneously. As someone who used to wait weeks and sometimes months for art-house movies to reach his Pennsylvania town, I am a big supporter of any initiative to get quality films into the hands of anyone who wants them. Go to www.filmmovement.com for more information or to see the "OT" trailer.)

*****

The impending release of "Marci X" (Aug. 22) will be of interest to Paul Rudnick fans; it’s his first credited script since 2000. And that was the critically reviled "Isn’t She Great?" which means you need to go back to 1997’s "In and Out" for a movie that has lived up to Rudnick’s talents. The amount of time that "Marci X," a fish-out-of-water comedy in which Lisa Kudrow handles PR for rapper Damon Wayans, has been on the shelf doesn’t bode well, but Rudnick is incapable of being unfunny. And look at the theatre-drenched cast: Among the co-stars are Christine Baranski, Jane Krakowski, Veanne Cox, Charles Kimbrough, Sherie Rene Scott and Hairspray star Matthew Morrison. So I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

Another playwright with sporadic film credits is Craig Lucas, whose latest screen effort is "The Secret Lives of Dentists." Lucas is an odd case: He can deliver stillborn stage works like Stranger, or he can hit one out of the park like The Dying Gaul. (It’s worth mentioning that Lucas plans to reunite with "Dentists" star Campbell Scott on the "Dying Gaul" film.) So where does the new film, directed by Alan Rudolph, fit in on that spectrum? Somewhere in the middle, but definitely closer to the latter, better side.

Lucas and Rudolph have produced something fairly rare in movies today: a relentlessly unglamorous look at a family muddling its way through domestic life. Since both David (Scott) and Dana (Hope Davis) are dentists, they have far more money than most families. But that doesn’t protect them from sick kids, unresolved rage and the looming specter of infidelity. The relentless gloom is leavened considerably after Dave transmogrifies one particularly hostile patient (Denis Leary) into a sort of evil Jiminy Cricket—like one of those Bad Influence Bears from Avenue Q, except not cute. This internalized pressure valve frees Dave to act in some fairly unpleasant ways, but the movie concludes with a very even handed and compassionate look at how a couple make the best out of "for better or for worse." Scott and Davis are both superb, and the end product makes one optimistic about Lucas and Scott’s next collaboration.

****

A few quick follow-ups on things that Playbill On-Line has reported on over the last few weeks:

•Can the producers be serious about an "urban, hip-hop" take on Bye Bye Birdie, as is being promised for a new big-screen remake? I can think of only one or two musicals so specifically rooted to one musical era; the Broadway-meets-Elvis sound is so inextricably linked with the Conrad Birdie plot, in my opinion, that any attempt at "punching it up" will fall completely flat. It’s like a reggae Grease! or a punk Little Shop of Horrors. I’m all for added diversity, and you could make a case for a more R&B sort of Conrad (a Jackie Wilson type, for example), but the fifties sound is going to be very hard to substitute.

•Theater for a New Audience has announced its new season, and its first entry—The Last Letter—may be a familiar title to "Stage to Screen" readers. Earlier this year, acclaimed documentarian Frederick Wiseman filmed his own stage adaptation of the Vasily Grossman novel "Life and Fate" and put it on film with haunting concision. TFANA was wise to select the play, and casting the superb Kathleen Chalfant is a huge step toward matching Wiseman’s sublime on-screen work with Catherine Samie.

•The movie version of "Phantom of the Opera" officially starts shooting in mid-September and won’t wrap until January 2004. Joel Schumacher reportedly has $80 million to play with.

****

The latest effort in my American Film Theatre viewing odyssey: "Butley." Simon Gray’s 1971 acting showcase has been in the news lately, what with Nathan Lane scheduled to take on the title role this fall in Boston before returning to The Producers.

The last 30 years or so have been good for Alan Bates, who created the title role in London and New York. In films like "The Cherry Orchard" and plays like The Unexpected Man, he’s learned to marshal his gifts and do more with less. (A noted exception is the drunk scene in Broadway’s Fortune’s Fool two years ago, but that scene was as effective as it was because he was fairly understated for the rest of the play.) Put bluntly, Bates chews the scenery here as Butley; he seems like an actor who has been playing the role for a few years, for better and for worse. But the character is a bit of a peacock, and once I got past his all-encompassing self-regard, I found myself buying into the performance after a short while.

The part is an absolute tour de force: I can count on one hand the number of times any character other than Butley gets a laugh. To be honest, Bates gives such an indelibly shambling, virile performance that it’s hard to picture Lane in the part. (I’d love to see Reg Rogers in the part, and maybe Kevin Kline is still young enough.) And why hasn’t Harold Pinter directed more? He shows an extremely firm hand with this extremely talky one-set piece, and I’d love to see what he can do on a more sprawling canvas.

***

Theatre-loving New Yorkers have plenty of options at the local repertory houses. Among the titles worth seeking out in the next month are "The Baker’s Wife" on Aug. 23 and Costa-Gavras’ underrated "Amen" the following week, both at Symphony Space.

But the real destination will likely be the Gramercy Theatre on East 23rd Street, which is hosting the Museum of Modern Art’s film series. Early September will see five different Jean Cocteau films, including 1948’s "Les Parents Terribles," based on his own stage work. (The play is probably best known as the source of the 1995 Broadway play Indiscretions.) "The Connection," based on the late Jack Gelber’s seminal 1959 play, uses several members of the original Living Theater production; it airs August 18. The irresistible "His Girl Friday," supposedly on its way to America in a new John Guare adaptation, hits the Gramercy on Aug. 28.

And Anglophiles will have a field day with "John Mills, Forever English," a five-week tribute to the beloved British actor that starts Sept. 11. The series opens at the Gramercy with "Hobson’s Choice," one of several David Lean films to feature Mills, and continues to feature "In Which We Serve" (written by Noel Coward) and "This Happy Breed" (based on a Coward play).

***

My Favorite Thought: Surprisingly, only one reader admitted to attending a performing arts camp. And it sounds like Zev’s experiences weren’t quite as hardcore as those depicted in "Camp":

"I went to a camp somewhat less committed than that in the movie: the Francine and Benson Pilloff Performing Arts Camp at the Cleveland JCC. For all but one year I attended, there were two four-week sessions, and in each session we presented an original revue written by the camp director. We had one that was a history of humanity, another that followed a group of kids who took a mall hostage during a back-to-school sale, a rather twisted retelling of ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ a version of various Dr. Seuss stories (before Seussical!) and a show entirely of TV themes. The camp's popularity went up quite a bit in the years I went, and since the shows needed to be able to accommodate everyone who wanted to appear in them, the stage got more and more crowded—I remember one with 96 people! I got to do some fantastic songs: ‘I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General,’ ‘Razzle Dazzle,’ ‘The Love Boat’ (for the TV-song show) and my personal favorite, ‘The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,’ in which I played Sweeney, wielding a rubber chicken. We couldn't find a good version of a razor, and when I used a fake ax, I scared the little kids to death. So a rubber chicken it was. However, since this camp was indeed not an away camp, many of the kids were not particularly theatre fans. In many cases, I was still the only one who knew who Sondheim was! ‘Normal’ was still normal at this camp. Oh, well."

Your Thoughts: Zev starts college in a few weeks, so I’m sure his exposure to outré theatre has just begun. Now: Do you think the world is ready for a hip-hop Bye Bye Birdie? And let me know if "Camp," "Marci X" or "The Secret Lives of Dentists" have made it to your area yet.

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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