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Sept 16/15

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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, the date will change accordingly. The new reviews will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: The End of the Tour (Movie); Tuesdays With Morrie (Play); Bed And Breakfast (Play)

The End of the Tour (Movie) written by Donald Margulies; based on the book by David Lipsky; directed by James Ponsoldt; starring Jason Segal, Jesse Eisenberg; with Joan Cusack, Anna Chlumsky, Mamie Gummer, Ron Livingston, Mickey Sumner, Becky Ann Baker

It's 2008, and journalist David Lipsky (played by Jesse Eisenberg) is shocked to receive the news that writer David Foster Wallace has committed suicide. Lipsky had become close to Wallace while writing a profile of him for Rolling Stone. The notoriously prickly and introverted Wallace had agreed to let Lipsky accompany him on the final days of a book tour in 1996. Stunned by news of the writer’s death, Lipsky gets out his tape recorder and starts playing some of the interviews from his time with Wallace. As we hear Wallace’s voice on tape, the movie flashes back to the actual days of the tour when Wallace (Jason Segal) was speaking the words we’re now hearing.

A neat transition. But can you make a good film out of a meeting between men who, no matter how interesting they may be, have a tendency to fall into conversation about fairly abstruse and esoteric matters? As the two men fumble through the awkward stages of getting to know each other, you quickly realize that this movie ain’t gonna be a crowd pleaser. Maybe that title – not exactly a grabber – is meant to tip you off. It more or less hints that things are going to be prosaic, maybe plodding, if not dull.

So....would we be watching this movie if we didn’t know that Wallace, a celebrated and esteemed author, had died tragically at the age of 46? Maybe not. But Wallace’s great promise did end abruptly and sadly. Knowing the doom that’s hanging over him keeps us watching. There’s no mistaking the sonorous clang of the line where Wallace, talking about people who have committed suicide, says something like: "Just imagine the state of mind of somebody for whom doing that would be the only way of escaping something worse." (Not an exact quote) The ominous mood is underlined by frequent shots of the bleak wintry landscape around Bloomington, Michigan, where Wallace was living at the time of the meeting with Lipsky. And for once, here’s a movie with a musical score that strikes just the right note of brooding and angst.

Apart from the obvious interest in Wallace’s story, one of the things that I think the movie’s about is male bonding. But this is a variation on the ritual that you’ve never seen before. These are not two guys knocking back beers and swapping stories about their favourite teams. Wallace is like a skittish colt that Lipsky is trying to harness by means of an interview, i.e. posing the necessary questions, soliciting the revealing details. Wallace seems willing enough at first, but we gradually learn that he insists that there are certain no-go territories. His parents, for instance. Wallace refuses to give Lipsky permission to talk to them. Some old friends are off limits too.

It’s clear that Wallace’s over-riding concern is that he’ll come off looking foolish in the interview. Never mind that his picture has appeared in Time, that his recently published novel, Infinite Jest, is being hailed as a masterpiece, the man has ambivalent feelings, to put it mildly, about fame and literary success. Frequently, Wallace balks at a line of inquiry and Lipsky has to remind him that he did, after all, agree to the interview.

Once the two men come to what seems to be a mutual understanding about the parameters of the interview process, the tension eases a little. Wallace, in moments of spontaneous candour, allows Lipsky to see unexpected flashes of his personality. His being hopelessly keen on Alanis Morissette, for example: he’s practically dumbfounded when Lipsky asks him to imagine having a coffee with her. Lipsky also learns that Wallace is so addicted to tv that he wouldn’t do anything but watch it if he had a tv in his house. Still, there are moments of conflict when it looks like the whole project could implode. Sometimes the hostility is about women – as when Wallace, in what seems like paranoia, thinks that Lipsky has been coming onto a woman friend of Wallace’s. Another underlying tension in the situation is the fact that Lipsky’s under pressure from his editor to dig into areas that Wallace probably won’t want to discuss: his notorious drinking, for example, and rumours of his former heroin addiction.

Through it all, we get a fascinating portrait of a troubled and conflicted man. The character, as presented in the movie, makes you think a lot about the plight of a gifted artist who struggles constantly with the contradictions between his sense of himself and his work, on the one hand, and his sense of how the public responds to him. Lipsky suggests that Wallace’s dumb act is really just an attempt to disguise the fact that Wallace always sees himself as the smartest man in the room. This leads to a lot of questioning about what is ‘faux’ and what isn’t in Wallace’s persona. When Lipsky asks about Wallace’s trademark bandana, Wallace goes into a tailspin of ratiocination. He started wearing one while living in Tucson, he says, because the heat made him sweat so much. Then he found he liked wearing it all the time. If he stops wearing it, now that the public sees it as an affectation, would such pandering to public reaction be a kind of affectation? (This is just my attempt to give the gist of his thinking on the subject; I can’t remember, at this point, the exact path of his thoughts.)

I don’t know whether or not Jason Segal’s performance gives us a person very much like Wallace as he truly was. There were times when I wondered if Mr. Segal was a bit too big, in some sense, for the role. He seemed like a husky, outgoing man who was trying to hold himself in, as if he were trying to squeeze himself into the soul of a less demonstrative man. Also, it sometimes occurred to me that Mr. Segal was doing a bit too much of what old school actors called "face acting." In this case, it amounts to Mr. Segal’s often twisting his lips in a way that is apparently meant to be a symptom of Wallace’s neuroticism.

In other words, it seemed that Mr. Segal was not a natural and obvious choice for the role of Wallace (and I don’t think that’s just because most of us tend to associate Mr. Segal with comic roles). But he does eventually offer a poignant and touching portrait of a man who’s only truly relaxed when he’s with his big, rambunctious dogs. Although Wallace is unfailingly polite to people, you can see what an effort that is for a man who has such anguished feelings about life and his relationships to other people. His attempt to be decent in conventional ways tears at your heart. Jesse Eisenberg, in the role of the fresh-faced, young journalist on the rise, makes a perfect foil for the relatively seedy and unkempt genius that he’s interviewing.

 

Tuesdays With Morrie (Play) by Jeffrey Hatcher and Mitch Albom; based on the book by Mitch Albom; directed by David Jansen; starring Ian D. Clark, Geoffrey Pounsett; Springer Theatre, Thousand Islands Playhouse; August 28 - September 19.

In case you’re the rare reader who’s never heard of this piece, here’s the story.

It’s a stage adaptation of a memoir by Mitch Albom about his re-connecting with Morrie Schwartz, an old college prof who’d meant a lot to him. Mitch, a high-flying sports journalist, hadn’t been in touch with Morrie for many years until he saw an episode of "Nightline" on which host Ted Koppel was interviewing Morrie. And why did Ted Koppel think Morrie was worthy of prime-time tv exposure? Because Mr. Koppel had heard that Morrie was dying of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and that he had some intriguing things to say about his departure from this world. The fact that Mitch happened to catch that interview prompted him to find time in his hectic schedule for a visit to Morrie. The encounter meant so much to Mitch that he continued to meet with Morrie every Tuesday until his death.

This production of the play brought me to the Thousand Islands Playhouse and to the town of Gananoque for the first time ever. It’s a lovely town, with old brick buildings on the main street and residential streets graced with magnificent, spreading homes. More quaint than Stratford, less gussied-up than Niagara-on-the-Lake. The theatre company’s mainspace, the Springer Theatre, is a modern, recently renovated auditorium in the former home, built in 1909, of a canoe club. Before and after performances, and during intermissions, you step out on the veranda to enjoy the vast expanse of the St. Lawrence river, dotted with its many islands.

Because of a family connection with the show, it wouldn’t be suitable for me to claim to offer an objective review but I can say that Geoffrey Pounsett, in the role of Mitch Albom, gave us an ambitious and aggressive man who seemed not to realize, until he re-connected with Morrie, that he was in danger of losing his soul. Ian D. Clark, as Morrie, was warm and witty, at his most charming, perhaps, in his dancing.

If this isn’t the perfect theatre piece, one reason might be that there’s so much narrative exposition addressed directly to the audience by the Albom character. But what can you do? You’re presenting a book. How else to fill in the background? Another problem with the play is that it gives the impression, almost, that Morrie lives alone, except for the presence of an occasionally glimpsed professional caregiver. You can accept that, for dramatic purposes, the play wants to focus on the relationship between the two men but I think it would have been more fair to Morrie’s actual history to indicate that his devoted wife, Charlotte, was in the wings, so to speak..

I was expecting this play to pile on the sentimentality. And it does dish out plenty of bromides about the meaning of life. But there are some gems among them. Pick whichever ones appeal most to you. One that struck me was the idea that the good that you have done for other people, the beneficial effect you have had on them, will live on in them and, in this sense, your life will continue when you're gone. And this suggestion: make peace when you can; on your deathbed it won’t matter who’s right or wrong.

What was unexpected about the show, for me, was a quality of beauty. A lot of that came in moments without dialogue. There was the music (provided by Mr. Pounsett at the piano) and the dancing by Mr. Clark. Then there were the silent moments when you were simply witnessing something compelling, as when Morrie was struggling to fork some of his beloved egg salad into his mouth and Mitch was simply standing awkwardly and watching. Even the shadowy, mute comings and goings of a caregiver added a touch of ritual and solemnity that helped to underline the enormity of what was happening.

 

Bed And Breakfast (Play) by Mark Crawford; directed by Ashlie Corcoran; starring Paul Dunn, Andrew Kushnir; Firehall Theatre, Thousand Islands Playhouse; August 14 - September 13.

In this world premiere of a comedy by Toronto playwright Mark Crawford, Brett (Andrew Kushnir) and Drew (Paul Dunn), gay partners living in Toronto, have just found out that Brett’s recently deceased aunt has left him a big old house in a small town. At first, the two men intend simply to sell the place as quickly as possible. As they become more involved in the life of the town, however, they decide to establish a Bed and Breakfast business in the inherited house.

Through two hours of rapid-fire scenes and characterizations of at least twenty-five people – all played by Mr. Dunn and Mr. Kushnir – the play takes us from the initial stages of the project, up to and beyond their establishment’s opening weekend. We get colourful and hilarious characters, both in Toronto and in the small town, confusion and turmoil for Brett and Drew, enthusiastic welcome from many of the small town folk and more than a hint of homophobia from some others.

For much of the first act, I found the proceedings sketchy. The play moves so rapidly through many aspects of the two men’s lives that it feels like the material wants to become a tv series or a full-length feature movie, rather than a single piece for the stage. I didn’t feel, for example, that we needed the scenes depicting their jobs in Toronto. Same for the aunt’s funeral. True, you can’t help admiring the phenomenal skill of the two actors as they flip so quickly from one characterization to another. And there are some good laughs in the script, as well as some nice social satire on things like Santa Claus parades and cottage decor stores where every product has a loon on it.

But the way the audience was reacting to the material made me uncomfortable. It seemed that these people were congratulating themselves on being so open-minded that they could enjoy the sight of these two guys and their gay carry-on. You had the feeling that the reaction of the Gananoque audience was much like the effusive welcome that Brett and Drew were getting from the townsfolk on stage who were so keen to show how gay-friendly they were. I found myself wondering whether a play like this would fly so well in a city like Toronto. Audiences might not be so entertained to see gay men doing their thing; we’ve seen it all so many times.

However, the second act of Bed And Breakfast does deliver some genuinely moving drama. Some big surprises are cleverly worked into the script. And there’s no question that the madcap opening weekend, and especially the disastrous first breakfast, make for an astounding display by the two actors as they depict about a dozen characters exploding all at once like fireworks. Perhaps the most significant tribute that I can give to the actors – and the playwright – is that I came away from the play with the lingering sense that I’d met a panoply of truly distinct characters.

To go even further in praise of the actors, in some instances, they actually made me forget that I was watching the same two men. In Paul Dunn’s case, it was his creation of a macho contractor, and of Brett’s inarticulate nephew. When those two characters were on stage, I was in the presence of two people who made me completely forget about Paul Dunn the actor. The same sort of thing applied to Andrew Kushnir’s presentation of Ray, the larger than life real estate agent from Toronto. When that man turned up, with his campy references to the two men as "Bitch" and "Girl," you felt as if you were being blown off your feet by a blast of personality from one genuine and unique individual.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com