THE DVD SHELF: "Theatreland," Billy Wilder's "Ace in the Hole," Harold Lloyd's "The Freshman" and David O. Russell's "American Hustle"

By Steven Suskin
18 May 2014

Cover art
Cover art

This month we watch the British documentary "Theatreland," Billy Wilder's "Ace in the Hole," Harold Lloyd's "The Freshman" and David O. Russell's "American Hustle."

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Theatreland [Athena], Chris Terrill's eight-episode look at the day-to-day operation of the historic Theatre Royal Haymarket sounds promising in description and starts off strong. Filmed mostly during the run of Sean Mathias' 2009 production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot — which was remounted on Broadway this season with stars Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart — eight half-hour episodes turn out to be too many to maintain interest.

The first two episodes are especially fine. We see the Haymarket staff prepare for the arrival of Godot. (The Haymarket, as we learn, is an historic playhouse that has been operating on the site since 1821.) Dressing rooms are prepared, houseboards are hung, fixtures are upgraded, actors arrive, previews begin, opening night approaches. Director/producer Terrill gives us privileged glimpses of the world past the lobby; a familiar world to those of us who've spent years of our lives behind the curtain, but likely fascinating to playgoers.



The strictures of observing working actors and paying audiences, though, start to intrude. McKellen and Stewart — who are busy trying to find their characters in Godot — are game participants, allowing us to glimpse them in rehearsal hall and dressing room, and sometimes freely speaking to the cameraman. One suspects that access to the stars was limited, though, and there are only brief snippets of Godot itself.

What we do get is plenty of time with the non-show staff. Attention is focused on the house manager, a nice enough chap. (I've known plenty of house managers in my time, including a couple of my favorite people, but they'd be the first to suggest that there are more scintillating people in the theatre to talk to.) "Theatreland" sees fit to concentrate on several peripheral workers, building them into continuing characters. An eager young usherette, for example, who is brought on frequently for comedic color. We see her learning to tie her tie, we see her commanding the audience during a fire drill in a nice loud voice (she's an out-of-work actress, naturally) and we see her serving tea and biscuits to a VIP. (It's Maggie Smith, except we don't actually see Maggie, only hear her voice through a door. One of the problems of having a camera unnaturally intruding on real life.) 

The house carpenter and his young assistant are a constant, continually fixing the hundred-year old seats, inspecting the roof, and in at least one scene appearing shirtless. (In my 40 years backstage at the theatre, I have never encountered anyone shirtless, except for actors.) And then there's the cheeky lass who blithely works away fixing the toilets in episode after episode. Yes, fixing the toilets. Every auditorium in London — and elsewhere — has toilets, but this is not exactly what we think of when we consider the magic of theatreland.

 

By the fourth installment, we are relegated to the ushers stalking through the house — with low-light photography and eerily spooky music — searching for a 19th-century ghost. The last four episodes apparently deal with the closing of Godot and the rehearsals of the next attraction, the Mathias production of Breakfast at Tiffany's starring Anna Friel. I, however, was done in by the manufactured-for-TV Haymarket ghostbusters.

 Continued...