January 09, 2003 



at the Next Stage


Reviewed by Rob Kendt           

The differences between stage and film are wide and deep, but I think an argument can be made that L.A.'s intimate theatres have done a lot to blur that distinction--we're so close to the actors in some of these spaces that they don't often have to project their voices, and "close-ups" happen naturally when you're a few yards from their faces. What will never change about the theatre is its sense of real, rather than edited, time: A stage production, no matter how intimate or off-the-cuff, still has the basic job of giving a live event enough momentum to sustain our interest over its running time, whereas a film's postproduction can nip and tuck any distractions or longeurs, compress time, even improve performances.


Director Seth Wiley's staging of Steven Soderbergh's 1989 breakthrough film fails this basic test, though the deck is stacked against him, from the venue--the Next Stage boasts six dinky lighting instruments and a narrow stage--to a little matter of short-staffing: no stagehand, let alone stage manager, to help the actors change scenery or position, and not always in a blackout. This is most pronounced in the transitions that need to be quick; Wiley is using Soderbergh's screenplay as it appears on film, and he doesn't seem to grasp the humor and force that editing juxtapositions can have--or, at least, has come up with no stage equivalent. When repressed housewife Ann (Amanda Bauman) segues from a conversation with her therapist (Emily Williams) to a related chat with her loose-living bartender sister Cynthia (Shauna Slade), she just gets up and crosses the stage, leaving her therapist in mid-conversation; Williams then finds a relatively unobtrusive moment to leave the stage during the sisters' conversation. Worse, there's the moment when Cynthia, having just made a hot confessional video for the enigmatic voyeur Graham (Justin Christenson), calls her lover John (Jack Sundmacher) to get some immediate relief; the decorous, stage-changing lag between the two scenes saps the joke, and only Slade's horny ardor reminds us that there's supposed to be a joke there.


Indeed, the actors do their best here, but they don't escape the memory of the film's performances or shade them with much more than a few colors. Each has a good moment or two, but given the shapeless quality of the staging and blocking, we might as well be watching an acting-class exercise; I half expected the actors to emerge at the end not for a curtain call but for a talk with the class and the instructor about their work. It must be said that the tall, lumbering Christenson, in the role James Spader made indelible, doesn't begin to suggest the reserves of pain, brains, and feeling that Spader brought to the role, and he ought to work on his diction--but he does have something, a star-like instinct in the way he plays to an audience. A climactic scene, in which Graham's camcorder is turned on him and the results are shown live on a TV centerstage, gives the game away: Christenson is a camera actor, hands down. One point of Soderbergh's fable about sexual awakening is that we like to watch; but it's a problem in the theatre when the most watchable moment is on a screen.


"Sex, lies, and videotape," presented by and at the Next Stage, 1523 N. La Brea Ave., Hollywood. Fri. 8 p.m. Dec. 13-Jan. 17. $10. (323) 850-7827.