STAGE TO SCREEN: “The Sea” and Other Summer Films

STAGE TO SCREEN: “The Sea” and Other Summer Films The background sound of yelping children isn’t exactly ideal during an interview, but I was happy to put up with it while talking with Baltasar Kormakur, the talented young Icelandic filmmaker behind "The Sea."

After two failed attempts to speak, I finally got hold of him when he had just returned to Reykjavik from the Cannes Film Festival and had taken his two kids to a particularly chaotic public swimming pool. And I was kind of grateful for the noise.

Why? Mostly because "The Sea" is one of the darkest portrayals of family life I’ve seen in a while. After immersing myself in Kormakur’s visceral but strangely inviting take on the Haraldsson family, with all its greed, rage, jealousy and self-loathing, I was hugely relieved to hear a father and his children actually having a good time.

The bitter goings-on of "The Sea" will likely be new to American moviegoers, but Icelandic audiences are very familiar with Olafur Haukur Simonarson’s acclaimed play of the same name. Both the play and the film follows a patriarch as he decides how (or even if) to entrust his struggling fishery to his children, all of whom have disappointed him in one way or another. Once the whole family gets together, the festering resentments explode with tragic results. "The Sea" is currently playing in New York and Los Angeles, and it should be in about 20 major cities by the end of June.

Simonarson and Kormakur collaborated on the screenplay, condensing the play’s five children into three and adding several new family members. "We wanted to use some of the characters and political ideas but also to reassemble the play into a new story," Kormakur says.

Critics have embraced "The Sea" — it won all but one of Iceland’s top film awards, the Eddas — and compared it to everything from The Little Foxes (the conniving kids) to King Lear (the domineering father in decline) to the pioneering Danish film "The Celebration" (the Scandinavian take on toxic family get-togethers). "I never thought about those works in the sense of trying to re-create them," Kormakur insists. "I just wanted to make a truthful picture." He did, however, paraphrase Chekhov, one of his favorite writers, during a pivotal confrontation near the end. Kormakur first made a name for himself as a stage actor and director, and he hopes to return to the stage soon: "It’s such a good place to reinvent yourself, and there’s a very interesting theater scene in Iceland." He’d love to direct either Ibsen’s Peer Gynt or Chekhov’s Ivanov in the near future, but first he’s working on "A Little Trip to Heaven," his first English-language picture.

While he’ll be the first to admit that "The Sea" is fairly bleak, Kormakur says "there’s also a lot of energy to it. . . .These [characters] can go on with their lives because they’ve gone through these problems. They’ve undergone this catharsis."

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As I mentioned last time, summer is generally not the best time for theatre-themed films, but May got off to a good start with "The Sea" and "The Shape of Things." It continues May 28, when a collection of Gallic documentaries opens at Film Forum. The middle piece, "Colette," is a 29-minute sequence observing a conversation between the eponymous French novelist and playwright/novelist/all-around provocateur Jean Cocteau.

June is awfully quiet, but July will see two projects of particular note. I’ve talked more than once about "Camp" (July 25), Todd Graff’s fictionalized take on the Stagedoor Manor theatre camp. Watch for references to Follies, Beckett and Dreamgirls, plus at least one irresistible cameo. And July 7 will mark the long-delayed opening of "Taking Sides," starring Stellan Skarsgard as the Third Reich-era composer Wilhelm Furtwangler and Harvey Keitel as the U.S. officer interrogating him. (Ed Harris played the latter role during the play’s Broadway run in 1996.) Ronald Harwood, who adapted his own work, won an Oscar this year for his adaptation of "The Pianist."

Speaking of screenwriters, August will feature two scripts worth mentioning. First up is "The Secret Lives of Dentists" (Aug. 1), Craig Lucas’ adaptation of a Jane Smiley novella. It stars Hope Davis and Campbell Scott, who also plans to appear in Lucas’ "Dying Gaul" adaptation. And we should finally get to see "Marci X," written by Paul Rudnick, on Aug. 22. Lisa Kudrow plays a spoiled rich girl forced to manage a hardcore gangsta rapper, and the supporting cast includes Christine Baranski and Tony nominee Jane Krakowski. This was shot well over two years ago, never a good sign, but the combination of Rudnick and Kudrow is pretty hard to resist.

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In addition to the Cocteau piece, Film Forum is once again leading the charge for theatre buffs in terms of repertory offerings. The summer centerpiece there is "The Lubitsch Touch," a three-week Ernst Lubitsch tribute that starts June 13. Among the films by the German master (who was idolized by no less than Billy Wilder) are adaptations of Wilde and Coward ("Lady Windermere’s Fan" and "Design for Living," respectively), a double feature of "The Merry Widow" and "The Student Prince" and something called "Romeo and Juliet in the Snow."

But there are plenty of other moviegoing options in New York City. Starting May 26, MoMA will screen 1959’s "Middle of the Night," which Paddy Chayefsky adapted from his own play, as part of the museum’s "Movie Love in the Fifties" series. BAM is featuring both "The Children’s Hour" and a longtime favorite of mine, "Wait Until Dark," as part of an Audrey Hepburn mini-festival from July 1 to 4. The HBO Film Festival at Bryant Park will feature three stage adaptations: "A Raisin in the Sun" (July 14), "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (July 28) and the 1968 "Romeo and Juliet" (Aug. 11). And watch for "Every Little Thing" on June 5, also at MoMA. This documentary looks at an annual play put on by the staff as well as the residents of La Borde, a psychiatric clinic in France.

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The recent Tony Kushner-Frank Rich discussion at the 92nd Street Y was terrific — it was great to see two of the theatre world’s most politically engaged theatre lovers/championers/practitioners discuss matters. The reason I bring it up here is that Kushner mentioned, in addition to Caroline or Change and two other plays he’s developing, a screenplay about Eugene O’Neill that’s in the works. He and Rich discussed the fact that O’Neill was one of the few playwrights who got better and better as he went, capped off with what Kushner called "the play about America," Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Two other items of note to film buffs surfaced over the course of the evening: Kushner’s biography in the program mentioned that Mira Nair ("Monsoon Wedding") plans to film "Homebody/Kabul," and a six-minute scene from the HBO "Angels in America" miniseries was screened. It was one of my favorite scenes from Perestroika, the one where Belize both consoles and terrifies a morphine-addled Roy Cohn with his description of the afterlife, and it looks like Mike Nichols has done a great job. Look for the first half on December 7.

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Your Thoughts: I know the pickings are a bit slim, but what theater-based summer film interests you the most?

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.