STAGE TO SCREEN: "P.S.," "Chicago" and the Year that Was

STAGE TO SCREEN: "P.S.," "Chicago" and the Year that Was Before I discuss 2002, I want to call some attention to the fact that not one but two play adaptations are making their way to theatres this January.

"Amen," Costa-Gavras’ adaptation of the World War II play The Deputy, opens Jan. 24; I’ll discuss it in my next column, which will go up near the end of the month. Meanwhile, look for "P.S. Your Cat Is Dead," based on the 1972 novel and 1975 play by James Kirkwood. (Kirkwood, best known for his Pulitzer- and Tony-winning book to A Chorus Line, also wrote one of my favorite books about the theatre, "Diary of a Mad Playwright.") "P.S." opens Jan. 10 in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Mike Nichols is one of numerous directors and producers who have tried to get "P.S."—the story of Jimmy Zoole, a down-on-his-luck actor who nabs a burglar in his apartment, ties him to the kitchen table and proceeds to bond with him on New Year’s Eve—onto the big screen over the last 30 years. Finally, Steve Guttenberg ("Diner," "Cocoon") snagged the rights and took on the project in a big way. In addition to starring as Jimmy, Guttenberg wound up directing, co-producing and co-writing the film.

"It’s great to keep expanding and learning things," says Guttenberg, 44, who made his directorial debut with "P.S." "And this is a piece I’m very connected to. It’s basically a parable about two desperate men on one desperate night."

As a first-time director, Guttenberg spent an inordinate amount of time rehearsing with the entire cast and crew in the huge loft that serves as the setting for nearly the entire film. Going over the script so many times was a mixed blessing, he says: "In sacrificing spontaneity, I gained the experience of blocking scenes and going down more roads than a ‘gig’ director might have."

Modernizing the script, however, posed very little difficulty. "I was thrilled at how easy the adaptation was," he says. "I think it’s perfectly well suited for forever." Guttenberg aimed for verisimilitude by filming virtually all of "P.S." at night, when the action takes place. As specific and often ludicrous as the on-screen action is, Guttenberg maintains that the lessons of "P.S." are universal. "I think it’s a metaphor for where the world is at. Instead of controlling and subjugating, Jimmy finally decides to listen. We need to communicate, and in order to do that, we need to listen. We must understand before we can be understood."

***

Back to last year. Despite a handful of solid theatre-related films in 2002 (I’ll get to those soon enough), all anyone seems to want to talk about is "Chicago." How faithful is it? Can they sing and dance? Does it work? The short answers: As much as you could realistically hope for. Yeah, surprisingly well. And definitely.

Anybody who’s seen the TV musicals by "Chicago" producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron—"Cinderella," "Annie" and especially "Gypsy"—knows to expect the insightful casting, the (relative) fidelity to the original material and the no frills professionalism. What you might not have expected was that flavor of grab-you-by-the-neck fervor that any Fosse adaptation requires. ("Moulin Rouge" had this quality in spades—to the exclusion of just about everything else, I would argue.) But director Rob Marshall and screenwriter Bill Condon have delivered a "Chicago" that’s as tough, twisty and fun as you might hope.

Is Marshall’s choreography as scintillating as Fosse’s? No. Will Renée Zellweger’s dancing make you forget Verdon and Reinking? No. But this "Chicago" reimagines everything that needed to be reimagined and leaves the rest of it alone. It finds a logical home for vaudeville in a realistic depiction of Jazz Age mayhem, and it brings just a touch of heart to Fosse, Kander and Ebb’s scathing reminder of how little it really takes to be famous these days. (It should also deliver Oscars for Catherine Zeta-Jones and maybe Condon.) I could have done with one fewer metaphor in "We Both Reached for the Gun"—Roxie’s not perceptive enough to conceive of Billy manipulating both her and the media—and I sure did miss "Class." Other than that, though, well done all around.

As for other filmed version of plays, "The Importance of Being Earnest" received a bit of attention this summer, but the three other studio releases—"The Grey Zone," "The Cherry Orchard" and "The Triumph of Love"—met with underwhelming response at the box office. Those three made just over $1 million combined; half of that came from "Grey Zone," hands down the best of the lot. I’m convinced that the glittery casting (David Arquette, Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi, Mira Sorvino) actually hurt the film: By this point, a lot of people are eager for any excuse to not subject themselves to another Holocaust film, and the presence of comedians like Arquette gave people all the excuse they needed. I like to think that "Grey Zone," a scorchingly powerful look at an underexplored chapter of World War II history, will find an audience on video. It deserves to be seen. "Earnest" and "Triumph" both tried too hard to make themselves "accessible" and "relevant," which only made them seem more dated. "Cherry Orchard" was more subdued and added gorgeous visuals to parallel Chekhov’s words. Fine performances were to be found in each of these (Judi Dench and Frances O’Connor in "Earnest," Ben Kingsley and the sublime Fiona Shaw in "Triumph," Charlotte Rampling and Owen Teale in "Cherry Orchard"), but only "Cherry Orchard" joined "Grey Zone" and "Chicago" as required viewing.

I have yet to see "Much Ado About Something," the documentary that explores the validity of the Shakespeare-was-really-Marlowe claims, but I very much enjoyed another theatre-themed documentary in 2002. My knowledge of Yiddish theatre in America had been confined to Mandy Patinkin’s Mamaloshen concert and that Yiddish Hamlet sequence from Rags, and I was perfectly content to leave it at that. But "The Komediant" was a charming and entertaining look at two generations of the Bursteins, a prominent family in the Yiddish theatre. (Most people today would probably recognize the family through the son, who now goes by Mike Burstyn.) By the way, "Much Ado" is appearing on PBS stations this month as a "Frontline" documentary; check your local listings for details.

Stephen Daldry, currently represented Off-Broadway with Caryl Churchill’s Far Away, bested his own first film effort ("Billy Elliot") with the exquisite "The Hours." David Hare’s script slightly overdid the glib modern-day chunk of the action, but the two earlier sequences are superb. One hopes Daldry will continue to flex his cinematic muscles. Meanwhile, fellow London wunderkind Sam Mendes tackled period drama with somewhat less success, as did Neil LaBute. I liked Mendes’ "Road to Perdition" a little less and LaBute’s "Possession" a little more than most people did, but both were well-paced and thoughtful period exercises. "Possession" never quite got to the core of what I understand made A.S. Byatt’s book so delectable, though, and "Perdition" ultimately felt like grand themes and gorgeous lighting in search of a movie. (Say, has anyone heard what Mendes is up to after the Emily Watson tandem of plays at BAM?)

The theatre world lost several giants with considerable movie experience. Adolph Green and Kim Hunter, of course, but also director George Roy Hill, Irene Worth and Richard Harris. Don’t forget William Warfield (Joe in the MGM "Show Boat" movie) and Dolores Gray. Frederick Knott wrote plays that spawned a great Hitchcock film, Dial M for Murder, and one of my all time favorite thrillers, Wait Until Dark They will all be missed, along with many others.

***

New Yorkers have a few new moviegoing options to choose from, now that Symphony Space has reopened the Thalia and the Museum of Modern Art has converted the Gramercy Theatre (formerly home to the Roundabout’s off-Broadway offerings) into a showplace for MoMA’s film offerings. But Film Forum continues to have the most impressive variety of theatre-related fare. Among its 2002 offerings: "Langrishe, Go Down," a long-dormant Harold Pinter psychodrama with stellar performances by Judi Dench and Jeremy Irons; "The Farewell," a little-seen and entertaining German film about Bertolt Brecht’s surprisingly un-unruly (would that be ruly?) brood of former and current wives and mistresses; and "I’m Going Home," Manoel de Oliveira’s subtle, transporting film about an aging French actor facing his mortality through such works as Ionesco’s Enter the King and Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

It looks like 2003 will also have a few choice titles from Film Forum, at least on its repertory screen. An upcoming Peter Sellers retrospective will include Neil Simon’s first screenplay, an Italian comedy called "After the Fox" (Feb. 12), and Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of the Vladimir Nabokov novel "Despair" will appear March 18 as part of a six-week Rainer Warner Fassbinder series. Not to be outdone, MoMA will feature the delectable "Sleuth" on Jan. 19 at the Gramercy. And if you happen to be in Queens on Jan. 5, stop by the American Museum of the Moving Image for a Bob Fosse triple feature—"All That Jazz," "Star 80" and "Lenny."

***

Finally, I have an announcement/confession to make. After two decades of avoiding it, I have finally seen "The Sound of Music." My wife, who has numerous fond childhood memories of the film, was aghast that the author of "Stage to Screen" had never seen the most popular stage adaptation of all time. So I finally agreed to watch the recent broadcast on ABC—and it really wasn’t half bad. With the exceptions of Falsettos and Gypsy, I prefer my musicals without children. Still, I really like "Edelweiss" and the music (though not the lyrics) to "My Favorite Things," and Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer have some real chemistry. So I’d fall short of calling myself a convert, but I may consider seeing the sing-along version the next time it rolls through town.

***

Your Thoughts: Well? Who’s seen "Chicago"? What did you think? And I’d love to hear from anyone who saw "The Grey Zone" or "The Cherry Orchard" in their all-too-brief runs or on video. Hope everyone’s 2003 is shaping up to be a great one.

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