STAGE TO SCREEN: TV Transfers and 'Road to Perdition'

News   STAGE TO SCREEN: TV Transfers and 'Road to Perdition' With new stage adaptations seemingly being announced for television every day, I thought it was time for a quick recap of what the various channels are currently up to. I’m focusing on the truly imminent projects — the ones that are either filming, well into preproduction or already in the can.

With new stage adaptations seemingly being announced for television every day, I thought it was time for a quick recap of what the various channels are currently up to. I’m focusing on the truly imminent projects — the ones that are either filming, well into preproduction or already in the can.

All’s fairly quiet on the network front, although the Matthew Broderick Kristin Chenoweth "Music Man" is on pace for ABC in spring 2003 and Fox has the new "Rocky Horror" movie scheduled for about the same time. (More on "Rocky" a little later.) HBO, currently riding high after receiving Emmy nominations for its "Dinner With Friends" and "The Laramie Project," will air its starry "Angels in America" miniseries sometime in 2003 as well.

And, if you’re hoping to catch one or two stage-based productions this year, fear not. HBO also has Uma Thurman and Juliette Lewis in "Hysterical Blindness," adapted by Laura Cahill from her 1997 Off Off-Broadway play. It airs next month, as does Showtime’s broadcast of Sam Shepard’s "True West," filmed live in 2001 with Bruce Willis and Chad Smith. PBS, meanwhile, will broadcast the final production of the long-running Contact live on Sept. 1. And the always-intriguing "Stage on Screen" series will finally unveil eight of the 19 Samuel Beckett productions overseen by Irish producer Michael Colgan. "Beckett on Film" will be divided into two evenings, one on Sept. 15 and one on Jan. 1, both hosted by Jeremy Irons. Among the Beckett works planned for the two evenings are "Waiting for Godot," "Play" and "Catastrophe." (The latter piece co-stars Harold Pinter, whose tantalizing "Langrishe, Go Down" screenplay can currently be savored at the Film Forum in New York.)

***

By now, most of you have probably caught "Road to Perdition." (A sad fact of the current movie business is that up to half of the average movie’s box office earnings is amassed in its first two weekends.) I liked it quite a bit but didn’t love it. For some reason, the media drumbeat had painted it as being this complete reinvention, and it’s not. It’s a genre picture — a splendidly paced, unusually gorgeous genre picture, but a genre picture nonetheless. It seems like director Sam Mendes and screenwriter David Self were determined to restore some of the grandeur to the gangster picture by conflating it with a Western. Out with Tony Soprano, in with Gary Cooper. This sounds like more of a criticism than I mean it to be, but it bears mentioning that "Perdition" is essentially a set of very skilled variations on a very familiar theme. But rather than talk too much about the film in general, I’d like to make two fairly specific points about Mendes:

1. He really has a way with young actors. Thora Birch and Mena Suvari were excellent in "American Beauty," and both of the boys in "Perdition" are equally strong. Tyler Hoechlin, who has more screen time than Paul Newman and Jude Law put together, is given very few tormented-preadolescent bits to fall back on — Mendes forces him to interact with Tom Hanks at a surprisingly clear-eyed, understated level — and the kid performs admirably. Bernadette Peters is obviously the main draw for Mendes’ Gypsy, scheduled for next year, but this could be one of the few times where the scenes with young June and Rose could be just as engrossing as the rest of the show.

2. Conrad L. Hall is one of the most gifted cinematographers ever. If that sounds like hyperbole to you, go rent "In Cold Blood" or "Searching for Bobby Fischer." As long as he and Mendes work together, I predict that at least one of them will win an Oscar each time out. They’re that impressive in tandem. (They both won for "American Beauty.") However, I think Mendes would do well to pull a Steven Soderbergh, strap a camera onto his back and shoot his next feature fast, cheap and messy. As breathtaking as "Perdition" and "American Beauty" both are visually, there’s a certain sterility that threatens to overpower the films. Alan Ball’s snarly, wrathful wit saved "American Beauty" from becoming too airless, but I sense a tendency that could prove dangerous over time. I’d hate to give up shots like that beach house in "Perdition," but if that’s what it takes, so be it.

***

So Natasha Richardson appears to be a definite to costar with Philip Seymour Hoffman in Miss Julie at the Roundabout this winter, and rumors are afoot that she and husband Liam Neeson will star in a Camelot revival as well. I wouldn’t hold my breath for the latter, but Richardson may jump into another vaguely theatrical project after Miss Julie runs its course. The long-awaited "Asylum," based on a truly creepy novel by Patrick McGrath, is slated to go before the cameras in early 2003 in Ireland. Richardson has long been attached to the project, which features a screenplay by playwright Patrick Marber, who both wrote and directed Richardson’s last Broadway outing, the 1999 Closer. Richardson’s a natural for the piece, a Victorian psychosexual drama set in an English mental asylum; if only Neeson would drop his Arthurian ambitions and jump into the male lead, we’d really be on to something.

***

Cutting-Room Floor: John Cameron Mitchell will serve as one of the script advisers at the eighth annual Sundance Brazil Screenwriters Lab in Rio de Janeiro next month. As you may remember, Mitchell got a lot of the work done on his "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" screenplay during a similar Sundance lab in the United States, so it’s nice to see him returning the favor. . . . The 1948 thriller "The Velvet Touch," the story of a Broadway diva who dodges the press and the police after possibly killing her producer, is slated for a remake. Rosalind Russell starred in the original; no word yet on who may fill her sizable shoes in the remake or if the Broadway milieu will remain. . . . For those of you inquiring about the whereabouts of the Neil LaBute/Jennifer Ehle/Gwyneth Paltrow (but not Tom Stoppard) "Possession," it’s scheduled to be the closing-night offering at the Locarno International Film Festival on Aug. 11. . . . Cherry Jones is always a welcome sight on the big screen — those tiny roles in big motion pictures ("Erin Brockovich," "The Perfect Storm") pay for an awful lot of stage appearances. Look for her in "Signs," opening Aug. 2. And Stephen Tobolowsky (Morning’s at Seven) and Richard Kind (The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife) are among the performers seen and/or heard in the somewhat inexplicable "Country Bears," opening July 26.

***

My Favorite Thought: Dave asked for some clarification on an item in my last column:

"Your column is the first I've heard of a ‘Rocky Horror’ revival as a TV production. Is this a showing of the film version titled ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ or a completely new production with a new cast? I suspect that the 'new' song is the reinstatement of ‘Superheroes,’ which was cut from the American screening and reinstated in the recent DVD release. . . Personally, I'd love to see a new production, based on the original source material as directed by Jim Sharman. It would help focus on the wonderfully inventive spoof that Richard O'Brien created and not the trappings that have enveloped ‘Rocky’ over the past two decades."

Your Thoughts: I’m not sure about the "new" song, but this is definitely a newly filmed "Rocky," with a new cast and everything. I hope that clears things up. Now: What are your thoughts on "Road to Perdition"? What genre should Mendes tackle next? And which Becketts would you like to see hit your TV screen?

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