Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. 29th Street Rep’s masterful production of a new stage adaptation of Coppola’s paranoid thriller is just one reminder.
BY ELLEN WERNECKE
It’s categorically easier to redeem a bad movie in adaptation (are you listening, Xanadu?) than isolate and preserve the workings of a great one. The New York premiere of The Conversation, based on the Francis Ford Coppola movie of the same name, is an eerie and dynamic piece that skillfully retains the paranoia and mystery of the film without the shrinking pains that sometimes accompany these projects.
Harry Caul (David Mogentale), the “best bugger on the West Coast,” is working a job involving a pair having a chat in a noisy park, the kind of challenging assignment he built his reputation on. The couple whose words fade in and out on the tape are not known to Harry or his pals in surveillance, nor are their topics anything out of the ordinary, but Harry becomes captivated, then obsessed with the slice of life he encounters. His suspicion is piqued when he is unable to drop off the tapes to the man who requested them, known only as The Director (James E. Smith). Fixated on the couple, Harry fears he’s just made the same mistake that resulted in the earlier deaths of a client’s family, and vows not to let innocent blood be shed again.
With the exception of a puzzling opener in which Harry addresses a crowd and a few smaller scenes, Kate Harris’s deft adaptation preserves the Coppola plot, and director Leo Farley’s approach shows he understands the power of the movie and the limitations of the stage format. Mogentale’s Harry Caul is a more melancholy, less sure creature than actor Gene Hackman’s character in the movie, but it works for the setting; a brasher, bigger performance might overwhelm the audience and the fascinating supporting roles, from Tim Corcoran’s spy huckster to the haunting-eyed Leigh Feldpausch voicing one half of the tape.
The modular, multifunctional set by Mark Symczak helps all of San Francisco shrink to a manageable size without compromising continuity; in particular, the upstage scrim behind which Harry and his crew spy, later used as a dressing room and bathroom, is an excellent innovation. But as far as stars go, the sound design by Joseph Fosco is every bit as much a character as Mogentale plays and would have been far easier to mess up in translation. The creepy, unavoidable ambient sounds that accompany Harry and his fellow wiretappers; the swirl of outdoor cacophony that accompanies the voices on tape (occasionally overwhelming their own voices); the unfamiliar crackles and flickers of reel-to-reel tape; all of these things Fosco has preserved, and they elevate the play in surprising ways.
Despite its evident modern applications, it’s clear The Conversation is from the era when there was something exciting and dangerous about warrantless surveillance – that is, when the government wasn’t doing it. (According to Wikipedia, admittedly not the most reliable source, Coppola has begun work on a remake of The Conversation which will emphasize post-9/11 paranoia. This is not a terrible idea on paper, but he should wait at least 15 years to do it; those wounds are too fresh right now.) Still, there’s nothing obsolete about fear and unease. See The Conversation right away: just make sure you don't have to leave the theater alone.
Through May 4 at 29th Street Rep
212 W. 29th Street
Tickets, $20, Smarttix.com
For more information, visit 29thstreetrep.com
According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.