Friday, December 4, 2009

The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter


By Rebecca Gilman, adapted from the novel by Carson McCullers. Directed by Doug Hughes. At New York Theatre Workshop. (CLOSED)

An interesting mix of responses for Rebecca Gilman's adaptation of Carson McCullers's debut novel. Each critic singles out a passage or character from the original 400-page novel, and most applaud Cristin Milioti and Henry Stram for their acting work as the precocious 14-year old music buff and deaf-mute confidante, respectively. But the scope and heartbreak of the source material has been diffused in Gilman's treatment and Doug Hughes direction, evidently. According to David Finkle of Theatre Mania, one major relationship has been muted so much it's almost been re-written.

Variety A
(Marilyn Stasio) The lights stay down on the Georgia town where the play's action is set, reflecting lighting designer Michael Chybowski's visual judgement on the mood of small Southern towns during the Depression years of 1938 and 1939. In David Van Tieghem's calculated design, ambient sounds of life are also muted in the detached homes, shops and cafes that silently glide in and out of view on Neil Patel's appropriately cheerless set. The overall mood of isolation is altogether apt for Gilman's dramatic interpretation of McCullers' story, about the profound impact on the locals when a deaf-mute named John Singer (Henry Stram) comes to town. Stram, a Broadway vet and Acting Company stalwart, delivers an extraordinarily centered perf, both self-contained and exquisitely alert to his surroundings.

Bergen Record A
(Robert Feldberg) Rebecca Gilman’s empathic adaptation of Carson McCullers’ 1940 debut novel, which opened Thursday at the New York Theatre Workshop, is a lovely evening of theater. While judiciously paring characters and incidents, Gilman, greatly aided by Doug Hughes’ sensitive direction, and a fine cast, finds a resonant stage equivalent for McCullers’ haunting tale of a deaf-mute man’s effect on a small Georgia town in the late 1930s ... In addition to the characters in the foreground, the production provides a rich sense of the town and the times, with the exotic mix of racism and radicalism, amid Depression poverty. Several of the performances are special.

Lighting & Sound America A-
(David Barbour) In the hands of the meticulous adaptor, Rebecca Gilman, Carson McCullers' novel, about the disfiguring effects of loneliness in a small Georgia town, becomes a quietly moving drama in the Horton Foote mode ... Cristin Milioti, who made a big impression earlier in the season in David Adjmi's Stunning, is equally fine here as Mick, the 14-year-old tomboy who lives on dreams of being a composer ... Gilman deftly keeps all four narratives moving along as the characters interact with each other and with Singer, portrayed with enormous grace and feeling by Henry Stram ... If Gilman deftly recreates these characters and their interlocking stories, she does grapple with certain structural problems; much of the action consists of brief scenes, many of them lasting less than a minute, hopping from location to location. Even in Neil Patel's elegant set design, in which a series of wagons roll into place under a false proscenium, and even with the cinematic crossfades of Michael Chybowski's lighting, there's a certain amount of unavoidable dead time spent waiting to get from here to there.

Curtain Up A-
(Elyse Sommer) The constraints of adapting a book for the stage made streamlining the text and paring down the cast of characters a necessity. The good news is that Ms. Gilman has done both quite ably, and without sacrificing the key characters ... Unfortunately, Gilman's script also doesn't give Singer's relationship with Antonapoulos the attention it warrants and thus fails to convey the darkness and depth of his isolation and final act of desperation. That said, while I didn't see Alan Arkin's much praised portrayal of John Singer in the movie version, I can't think of a more ideal actor to play Singer in this stage version than the unassuming Henry Stram ... Director Doug Hughes has drawn strong, sensitive performances out of everyone here. Christin Milioti, not only imbues Mick with convincing rebellious spirit and optimistic bravado (at least for most of the play) but looks remarkably like Carson McCullers. Andrew Weems does well by Jake, the hard-drinking political organizer and James McDaniel and Roslyn Ruff are outstanding as Dr. Copeland and the pious daughter who loves him despite their opposite beliefs ... Despite the fact that this adaptation is overshadowed by its source, the combination of respectful adaptation, excellent acting and skillfull direction and stagecraft add up to a mostly absorbing evening — especially if you're familiar with the book so that your memory will fill in the scenes and poetry that' have gone missing in the page to stage transition.

Talk Entertainment B
(Oscar E. Moore) Beautifully acted by the ensemble cast of ten the play itself is episodic and problematic ... Perhaps it is the electrifyingly honest and detailed performance of Cristin Milioti as Mick that sets the balance of the play off - in her favor. You cannot wait until she returns for her next scene. Perhaps there is too much to immediately absorb. Perhaps the waiting for John Singer to write down in his notebook to communicate with the others makes one impatient. Perhaps it is the many revelatory monologues spoken taking the place of dialogue between Mr. Singer and the others. Perhaps the letters from him to his friend that are read towards the end should have come sooner. Perhaps Carson McCullers thought that The Heart is a Lonely Hunter made a better novel than stage play. As good as this production is, one wonders why she never adapted it herself. Perhaps she thought it would be too episodic and problematic to do so.

Time Out New York C+
(David Cote) When it fails, it’s like trying to enjoy a gourmet feast by looking at a diligent list of ingredients. Still, you have to give adaptor Rebecca Gilman props for the effort ... Gilman cleverly gives Singer (movingly played by Henry Stram) direct-address monologues at the beginning and end of the show. Her choice is neatly theatrical, but what comes in the middle is too often an episodic summarization of Heart’s plot. And the book is more than plot. Because of Singer’s silence, the lonely outcasts attracted to him unpack their hearts; as a stage device, it becomes too static. Nevertheless, director Doug Hughes has an outstanding cast, including Andrew Weems as a hard-drinking communist agitator; James McDaniel as a stoic black physician trying to maintain dignity in the face of Jim Crow; and the transfixing Cristin Milioti as Mick, a free-spirited teen dragging her heels into womanhood.

New York Times C
(Charles Isherwood) Sadly, little of the furious feeling that consumes McCullers’s characters has made its way into the respectful but lifeless stage version that opened on Thursday night at New York Theater Workshop, a co-production with the Acting Company. The playwright Rebecca Gilman (“Spinning Into Butter”) has written a workmanlike adaptation that draws directly on the novel’s dialogue and moves through most of its major incidents clearly enough. The director, Doug Hughes, provides a tasteful frame (the weathered wooden set by Neil Patel is gorgeous), and the cast is solid. But what’s onstage is a surface sketch of the book, one that fails to communicate any of its emotional substance. It’s a mere blueprint of a cathedral, not the majestic building itself.

The Village Voice C
(Alexis Soloski) [Gilman's] adaptation and Doug Hughes's direction refine McCullers's idiosyncratic novel into a playable, if rather wan, drama ... Hughes's direction also works to smooth and improve any rough edges. Platforms of scenery slide back and forth seamlessly, quick bursts of music disguise set changes, careful lighting lends the scenes a picturesque cast. Hughes's elegance and Gilman's efficiency combine to render the story strangely opaque. All the action ticks along very nicely, but the play doesn't engage, and the actors, though capable, don't make much of an impression.

Theatre Mania C-
(David Finkle) Meanwhile, those who know the book will see a loose version of McCullers' wounding tale -- directed in stately measure by Doug Hughes -- that misses one of McCullers' major points so widely it practically amounts to a travesty ... While Gilman is mostly true to the melancholy tale, the area where she goes horribly wrong -- and where Hughes does little to correct her -- is the depiction of the Singer-Antonapoulos relationship. Whereas McCullers establishes the men as a familiar sight in their town from her opening sentence, Gilman has the sick man barely introduced before being whisked away with a pained parting gesture to Singer. A subsequent meeting and a projection of the two on the wall of Neil Patel's economic set further suggests the two men are happy together. They're anything but. No fault can be attached to the actors -- including Michael Cullen as Mick's ineffective father and Roslyn Ruff as Portia, Dr. Copeland's daughter and the Kelly's maid -- all of whom look and act right in Catherine Zuber's period costumes. Michael Chybowski's moody lighting and David Van Tieghem music also help the production. But they're all working in service of a script that fails to do justice to a singular piece of American literature.

That Sounds Cool C-
(Aaron Riccio) ... the observational style seems a better fit for fiction than for the theater. So much is left to our imagination that what ends up on stage often is as fixed and as awkward as the "party" that Singer attempts to host in his room for these four, and it's hard not to notice how undeveloped the supporting cast is ... Doug Hughes's direction is, unfortunately, too smooth to really portray the loneliness. Neil Patel's square flats, which represent the central locations of the novel, slide as neatly to the front of the stage as the too-tidy characters make their pronouncements. His saving grace is that he is able to linger on in some of those moments, capturing the light in Singer's (Henry Stram's) eyes as he shows off for his mentally unstable ox of a friend, Antonapoulos (I. N. Sierros), or the tears of joy Mick finds in the available fantasy of radio music--and what that must "sound" like to Singer, who can only watch her react.

Associated Press D
(Jennifer Farrar) Despite some outstanding performances, the New York Theatre Workshop's current off-Broadway production feels heavy-handed and flat. Yet the central character, the deaf John Singer, is movingly portrayed by Henry Stram with a sweetness and air of repressed despair. Silent through most of the play, Stram's briskly polite, formal characterization is memorable. Gilman has Singer speak directly to the audience at the beginning and end of the play, which only half succeeds. Hearing him speak initially, the audience understands his intelligence and spirit, and learns what matters to him. However, Singer's negative concluding statement feels jarringly misplaced. Gilman's writing and the direction of Doug Hughes have successfully coloured all the characters' interactions with notes of loneliness and alienation, particularly in their individual relationships with Singer.

Talkin' Broadway D
(Matthew Murray) ... Gilman’s focus on all the attendant matters reduces the impact of John’s silent plight. Running nearly 400 pages, McCullers’s novel has the space it needs to balance everyone’s concerns. The play, running two and a half hours, doesn’t, and isn’t just forced to elide, summarize, and truncate, but also make John a lone voice in a screaming crowd rather than the ear that distills all the sound into music.

Variety A 13; Bergen Record A 13; Lighting & Sound America A- 12; Curtain Up A- 12; Talk Entertainment B 10; TONY C+ 8; New York Times C 7; Village Voice C 7; Theatre Mania C- 6; That Sounds Cool C- 6; Associated Press D 4; Talkin' Broadway D 4. TOTAL: 102/12 = 8.5 (B-)

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