STAGE TO SCREEN: The Works of Neil LaBute

News   STAGE TO SCREEN: The Works of Neil LaBute My doubts have been confirmed about Natasha Richardson and Alan Cumming filming a "Cabaret" movie. Last month, I speculated that the talks would result in nothing more than a return to the Broadway production and possibly a taping for television, and that appears to be exactly what will happen. Along the way, Richardson also had to drop out of the planned Roundabout revival of Strindberg’s Miss Julie with Philip Seymour Hoffman. The production is apparently still on: Having lost Our Town and the new Spring Awakening musical in the space of about a month, the Roundabout can ill afford to drop its starriest revival of the season and is looking frantically for a new Julie. The most likely candidate appears to be Rachel Weisz, whose last stage role — in Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things — involved sexual manipulation as well. Weisz repeated her role for the "Shape of Things" film, which is scheduled to open in either February or March of 2003.

My doubts have been confirmed about Natasha Richardson and Alan Cumming filming a "Cabaret" movie. Last month, I speculated that the talks would result in nothing more than a return to the Broadway production and possibly a taping for television, and that appears to be exactly what will happen. Along the way, Richardson also had to drop out of the planned Roundabout revival of Strindberg’s Miss Julie with Philip Seymour Hoffman. The production is apparently still on: Having lost Our Town and the new Spring Awakening musical in the space of about a month, the Roundabout can ill afford to drop its starriest revival of the season and is looking frantically for a new Julie. The most likely candidate appears to be Rachel Weisz, whose last stage role — in Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things — involved sexual manipulation as well. Weisz repeated her role for the "Shape of Things" film, which is scheduled to open in either February or March of 2003.

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Incidentally, the 1951 Swedish film of "Miss Julie" is screening Sept. 15 at the brand-new Thalia Theater within the Symphony Space complex on the Upper West Side. It’s part of Symphony Space’s "All About Eves" tribute to femme fatales. You already missed "All About Eve," my all-time favorite movie about the theatre, but you can catch "Carmen Jones" on Sept. 22.

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And speaking of LaBute, that guy is everywhere lately. He's got one play in London (The Distance From Here), a September 11-themed play opening in New York with Sigourney Weaver and Aaron Eckhart (The Mercy Seat) and another piece that debuted in Brave New World, the four-day theatrical tribute to September 11. "The Shape of Things" is opening early next year. And "Possession"? Well…"Possession" isn't doing so hot. The reviews were respectful but not great, and the fans of the A. S. Byatt novel appear to have stayed away in droves. After almost a month in theatres, it's several weeks away from cracking $10 million. Lush period mini-epics filmed throughout England cost a lot more than $10 million. By comparison, "Nurse Betty" — LaBute's other mainstream studio film — made close to $25 million, and Gwyneth Paltrow is arguably a bigger box-office draw than Renee Zellweger.

And the movie's pretty good. It's not great — it's one of the few movies I've seen in a while that could stand to be longer, not shorter — but the 19th-century material plays pretty well, and the various plot climaxes are very satisfying. The big problem is common to a lot of time-hopping movies; time constraints keep either world from being fleshed out properly. I haven't read the book, but I get the impression that Byatt stuffed it with period letters, poems and diary entries. LaBute understandably jettisoned most of that, but now that the Victorian era is reduced almost entirely to narrative, the modern-day romance seems awfully poky and undercooked by comparison. I like the contention that the cloistered, repressed Victorian era actually had more sexual oomph than our supposedly liberated period, but it means Paltrow and Eckhart spend a lot of time spinning their wheels. Ambivalence is hard to depict well — when's the last time you saw a totally satisfying production of Company? — and LaBute doesn't quite swing it here. Still, you could do a lot worse, and it’s refreshing to see LaBute flex less misanthropic muscles, a process that began with “Nurse Betty.”

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Before he left reel.com for Kevin Smith’s movie-news website, fellow columnist Jeff Wells took Miramax to task for delaying release of the Graham Greene adaptation "The Quiet American," starring Brendan Fraser and Michael Caine. Miramax is apparently concerned that the movie’s critical tone about U.S. involvement in Vietnam would meet with hostility, given the nation’s mood these days. (Wells’ old columns are still up on the reel.com site and still worth the time.)

What Wells didn’t mention is that the two "Quiet American" screenwriters are old theatre hands as well — Christopher Hampton (Les Liaisons Dangereuses) and Robert Schenkkan (The Kentucky Cycle). Both of them have signed on to adapt recent literary best sellers. Hampton is currently directing "Imagining Argentina" in Madrid with Emma Thompson and Antonio Banderas, and it looks like he’ll go from that to writing the screenplay for "Atonement," the hugely acclaimed novel by one of my favorite living writers, Ian McEwan. Richard Eyre ("Iris") is scheduled to direct. Schenkkan, meanwhile, will adapt Paulette Jiles’s "Enemy Women," a Civil War love story set in part in a Union prison.

Joining the screenwriter-playwright ranks is Erin Cressida Wilson, who’s probably best known for her play Hurricane at Classic Stage Company. Her screenplay for "Secretary," starring James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal, has earned a fair amount of attention at various film festivals; it opens in limited release on Sept. 20. Wilson also participated in the Brave New World tribute to September 11; her next full-length stage work, a musical titled Wilder, is scheduled to open at Playwrights Horizons in mid-2003.

And don’t forget the granddaddy of all hyphenates, David Mamet. Now that he’s done directing "Diary of a Young London Physician," the Jekyll-and Hyde retelling starring Jude Law and Penelope Cruz, Mamet can sit down and write the John Dillinger biopic for which Warner Bros. is reportedly paying him seven figures. After writing "The Untouchables" back in 1987, Dillinger should be a piece of cake. In addition to the Glengarry Glen Ross revival scheduled to reach Broadway in January with Danny DeVito, Mamet’s Boston Marriage will finally reach New York in November at the Public.

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I've been skulking around multiplexes lately just to catch the "Chicago" trailer, which looks terrific: The whole "musical numbers in Roxie's mind" concept has apparently led to some pretty gritty real-life sequences coupled with fantastic musical numbers. You don't hear much of the score, but you do see a "They Both Reached for the Gun" newspaper headline, a quick shot of what looks like "Hot Honey Rag" and plenty of the sumptuous Catherine Zeta-Jones belting out "All That Jazz." I've been a dissenter for years now, but I'm starting to think this is gonna work.

Meanwhile, if you're looking for gorgeous women singing on screen while peering over their shoulders at mortality, you may want to seek out the French hybrid "8 Women." I've read several intriguing reviews of this film, which stars a Who's Who of glamorous French actresses. Catherine Deneuve and Emmanuelle Beart are joined by everyone from Virginie Ledoyen to Danielle Darrieux, who starred in a handful of legendary Marcel Ophuls films more than 50 years ago. The film itself sounds like a mix of "Gosford Park" and "The Women" with some crooning thrown in. The reaction may be similar to that of "Dancer in the Dark," which also featured Deneuve: For better or for worse, you don't see stuff like this very often.

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I mentioned the Symphony Space screening of "Miss Julie" and "Carmen Jones" above, but those are hardly the only theatre-themed films screening in New York revival houses. As always, Film Forum can be counted on for a few intriguing titles. It just began a 34-film retrospective of works by the criminally underrated director William Wyler; it includes "Funny Girl," "The Heiress" and three Lillian Hellman adaptations ("The Little Foxes" and "The Children's Hour," plus the lesser-known "These Three"). And the Screening Room is in the middle of the Frame By Frame HBO Documentary Film Series, which includes Eve Ensler's solo rendition of "The Vagina Monologues" (Sept. 15) along with a slew of other documentaries.

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Plenty of stage veterans to see on the big screen this month: Taye Diggs, the upcoming Billy Flynn in Chicago — and the Bandleader in the upcoming film version — co-stars with Mos Def in "Brown Sugar," opening Oct. 11. "Tuck Everlasting" opens the same day with Victor Garber. Mary Louise Parker has two movies opening Oct. 4, the extremely high-profile "Red Dragon" (with Burn This star Ed Norton) and the smaller-scale "Pipe Dream." Subsequent Proof performer Neil Patrick Harris is in "The Mesmerist," which begins a limited release on Sept. 20. And everyone’s favorite imperialist epic, "The Four Feathers," also returns on Sept. 20, this time featuring Alex Jennings (a memorable Hamlet in a recent Royal Shakespeare Company visit to New York) and directed by Shekhar Kapur. As you may remember, Kapur is supposedly on deck to tackle the "Phantom of the Opera" movie, and he has yet to sign on to any follow-up project. Any bets as to whether it will happen this time?

Your Thoughts: Has anyone out there seen "Possession"? (At $10 a ticket, at least 700,000 people have.) What did you think? Do you like LaBute romantic, or do you prefer him nasty? What are your thoughts on Mamet doing the gangster thing? And who else has seen the "Chicago" trailer?

Eric Grode is a 2002-2003 American Theatre Affiliated Writer, the New York bureau chief of Show Music magazine, an assistant editor of The Sondheim Review and a theatre critic for Back Stage. He can be reached at egrode@hotmail.com.