This column tends to focus on plays that become movies. That's the usual progression: With only a fraction of Hollywood projects ever coming to fruition, a constant influx of story ideas from Broadway and elsewhere is required. But when Imperfect Love begins previews next month in a new 99-seat Tribeca theater, it will be the latest step in an unusually circuitous route for playwright/director Brandon Cole.
Cole began working on the play back in 1984, when he read an article by Luigi Pirandello extolling the virtues of actress Eleanora Duse and lamenting the fact that the theatre producers of her time had no idea how to spotlight her talents. "It's not just that she had a gift," Cole says of the legendary actress. "She was extremely hard-working, extremely industrious. She sacrificed." He began researching Duse's life and quickly decided to write a play about her.
That decision was the last thing to happen quickly in the life of Imperfect Love -- or Duse, as it was then called. Despite staged readings and workshops with actors like Kathleen Turner, Peter Gallagher and his friend John Turturro, the play never got produced. But he and Turturro continued their working relationship, most notably on the film "Mac," which Cole wrote and Turturro directed.
"John is a terrific collaborator," Cole says of Turturro, who has also worked with Cole on the film "O.K. Garage" in addition to various plays. "He does his homework. He brings stuff. He listens."
After "Mac" won the Best First Film prize at the Cannes Film Festival, Turturro suggested adapting Imperfect Love for the screen. The two spent a solid year turning the play into what would become "Illuminata." In the process, Cole says, the historical particulars (particularly Duse and her lover, the writer Gabriele D'Annunzio) were removed and the setting was relocated from Rome to America. "We went everywhere to scout locations. We visited Italy, we visited Paris, we visited Portugal -- and we ended up filming in Jersey City." The play was confined to five characters interacting over the course of one day; the movie is brimming with actors, including such heavy hitters as Turturro, Susan Sarandon, Ben Gazzara and Christopher Walken. "Illuminata," which opened this summer to respectable reviews and so-so box office, was just released on video.
"That experience was significant for what happened afterward," Cole says of filming "Illuminata." "It caused me to go back to the script." He did some substantial revisions to the original play, and Imperfect Love has finally made it to the stage after 16 years. Although the play does have farcical elements -- the plot involves a theatre company, including two clowns, struggling to fix a play in one day amid romantic intrigue -- Cole calls it a serious comedy: "There's a dignity to these people. They're not just going for jokes here."
Imperfect Love begins previews Feb. 14 at The Ryan Stage, on Chambers Street, and is scheduled to run through April 16.
One reader made a suggestion so perfect I can't believe it hasn't been discussed already: Julie Taymor directing the "Into the Woods" movie. Rob Reiner was attached to this for a long time; Jim Henson's company had devised some new characters, and Stephen Sondheim was reportedly working on some new songs. If Wise Guys truly is dead, this would make a fantastic project for him and Taymor. Billy Crystal and Joan Cusack as The Baker and His Wife, with Bernadette Peters recreating her role as The Witch -- what do you think?
Speaking of intriguing musical projects, the off-beat, poly-octave, Icelandic chanteuse Bjork is starring in "Dancer in the Dark," the latest film from fellow Scandinavian Lars Von Trier ("Breaking the Waves"). Due out later this year, "Dancer in the Dark" features one of the odder plot synopses I've seen in a while, courtesy of Fine Line Pictures:
"'Dancer in the Dark' is an emotionally gripping tale of Selma, a Czech immigrant and single mother working in a factory in rural America. Selma's salvation is her passion for music, specifically classic Hollywood musicals. The clanging and clattering of industrial machinery inspire her to imagine show-stopping numbers featuring her coworkers, including her best friend and confidante, Kathy (Catherine Deneuve). But Selma harbors a sad secret. She is losing her eyesight due to a genetic disorder, and her 10-year-old son stands to suffer the same fate. With a single-minded dedication, Selma sets out to earn the money necessary for her son to have a vision-saving operation. When a desperate neighbor threatens Selma's savings, he sets in motion a series of events that bring this emotional drama to its inspiring finale."
Thanks for your help in tracking down the play Julie Johnson, which Lili Taylor is about to start filming in Hoboken. The piece had a few prominent staging, most notably at the Humana Festival in 1994. Next question: Who knows anything about a short film of Tom Stoppard's 15 Minute Hamlet? A perusal of the Internet Movie Database talks about such a film, starring Austin Pendleton in the title role and supporting actor extraordinaire Philip Seymour Hoffman ("Magnolia," "The Talented Mr. Ripley") as Laertes, Horatio and Bernardo. Has anyone seen this? Where can I get a copy of it?
Cutting-Room Floor: A few more playwrights have landed high-profile screenplay assignments. William Nicholson (Shadowlands) has written a World War II film called "Fertig" that may become Tom Cruise's next project, depending on whether Cruise and Stephen Spielberg decide to get moving on "Minority Report." And Donald Margulies, whose Dinner With Friends is one of the real treats of this theater season, is currently adapting Tom Wolfe's "A Man in Full" for a TV miniseries. ... Playbill reported earlier this week on an upcoming film adaptation of Margaret Cho's one-woman show, I'm the One That I Want. Before that sees the light of day, though, watch for Danny Hoch's "Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop." This film version of his latest one-man show is due out in March. ... Kudos to Kevin Spacey for securing the film rights to "The Iceman Cometh." With all the theatre-based films he's made ("Glengarry Glen Ross," "Looking for Richard," "Hurlyburly," the upcoming "The Big Kahuna"), Spacey has become arguably the theatre's most valuable cheerleader in Hollywood. … Prepare yourself for "Tap Dogs: The Movie." Actually, it's called "Bootmen." Tap Dogs creator Dein Perry wrapped filming a few months ago on this film about an Australian steelworker who dreams of (yes) tap dancing. Various Tap Dogs cast members appear in the film, including a cameo by Perry; late 2000 has been given as a release date. ... Very few stage names are appearing in films this week, although Parker Posey and Liev Schreiber are among the stars of "Scream 3" (Feb. 4). And "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg," a documentary about the Jewish baseball great that's gradually making its way into national release, features Mandy Patinkin's Yiddish rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."
My Favorite Thoughts: First off, Marc shed some light on the copyright discussion that started last time in this space:
"You seem not to have heard that the copyright laws have been changed. Starting two years ago, 20 years have been added on. (Supposedly, Disney was worried about their Mickey Mouse copyright, which was about to go into public domain). Therefore, something from 1922 went into public domain three years ago, but something from 1923 has 18 more years to go."
A bunch of readers floated their ideas for Broadway projects helmed by Hollywood directors. Here are two of my favorites.
Tim: "Spike Jonze — revival of Hair (I see fast-paced video projections of 60's events). Mel Brooks — why leave the musical adaptation of The Producers in someone else's hands? Tim Burton — musical adaptation of Interview with the Vampire (which would make an excellent, sung-through musical anyway). Robert Altman — revival of Our Town."
Will: "I'd like to see Todd Solondz do Durang or Pinter. Although he has directed for the stage, I have this great project for Woody Allen. Imagine him directing and starring in The Master Builder.. Imagine Mrs. Solness being played by Judy Davis (going off her rocker with those dolls) and Reese Witherspoon as Hilde. And who better than Woody to capture Ibsen's phallo-anxiety?!"
Some questions for your feedback: When a play gets filmed, do you like to see it "open up" in terms of charatcers, setting, etc.? Or do you prefer a simulation of the play? And how would you cast the "Into the Woods" movie?
Eric Grode is New York bureau chief of Show Music magazine, assistant editor of The Sondheim Review and a theatre critic for Back Stage.