David Mogentale in The Conversation
(© Peter Sylvester)
David Mogentale in The Conversation
(© Peter Sylvester)
It's easy to see why Francis Ford Coppola's Oscar-nominated 1974 film The Conversation would be an appealing choice for a stage production. With its focus on surveillance and moral responsibility, the work seems remarkably timely. Unfortunately, Kate Harris' adaptation of The Conversation -- first seen in Chicago in 2005 and now being directed by Leo Farley at 29th Street Rep -- has not found the right balance between a rigid adherence to Coppola's original script and reinterpreting the work specifically for the stage.

Set in 1972, the play revolves around surveillance expert Harry Caul (David Mogentale), who has just turned 44 and has a hard time sharing any personal information with anyone -- including coworker Stanley (James E. Smith) and girlfriend Amy (Amber Gallery). His most recent job involves recording a conversation between Ann (Leigh Feldpausch) and Mark (Craig Butta). However, he becomes guilt-ridden and anxious after an encounter with Matthew Harrison (Jack Dillon), the assistant to the man who hired him, makes him suspect that his work may be used to harm the young couple.

Harris lifts huge chunks of dialogue directly from the film and includes scenarios that are dependent upon visual images that Farley is unable to realize within his production. For example, in the movie, Harry and Stanley are on the job making the recording, when two women come along and use the mirrored windows of their van to put on lipstick. But since there's no van or even a mirrored surface included in Mark Symczak's fairly minimalist set, the action seems completely unnecessary to duplicate on stage. Moreover, scenes that Harris has added -- including one that has to explain an iconic moment in the film, involving an overflowing toilet -- feel labored and crammed with exposition.

On the plus side, having Feldpausch and Butta mouthing certain words during Ann and Mark's conversation is a good solution to showing what parts of Harry's recording are unclear. Joseph Fosco's outstanding sound design also does a brilliant job of including appropriate background noises, the whirring of Harry's tapes as they rewind or fast forward, and other sound effects that help to establish location and mood.

Mogentale's Harry is rendered rather flatly in Act I, but as the character's emotional turbulence increases in the second half of the play, the actor is able to bring richer and more varied shades to his performance. He's particularly moving in a dream sequence that begins the second act in which Harry finally divulges some personal information, and memorably confides "I'm not afraid of death...but I am afraid of murder."

Smith is a little too stiff as Stanley, while Gallery doesn't really distinguish herself as Amy or any of the other roles she portrays. Feldpausch nicely captures Ann's vulnerability, but Butta fails to give Mark much of a personality. Dillon plays the lighter moments of his part well, but could stand to project a bit more intensity in Matthew's interactions with Harry. Tim Corcoran makes a strong impression as Harry's somewhat sleazy competitor, William P. Moran. Thomas Wehrle appropriately comes across as a blow-hard as Paul, the policeman Harry sometimes employs to assist with his recordings. Rounding out the cast is Julianne Carpenter as Meredith, whose interest in Harry turns out to have motivations beyond the merely sexual.

What the film so beautifully captured was the psychology of Harry's increasingly paranoid mind. In the play, an opening sequence with a number of the characters converging upon Harry speaking various key lines -- a device later repeated towards the show's end -- is supposed to accomplish this same effect, but doesn't. In fact, the uneven results achieved here may give you the feeling that instead of watching the play, you'd be better off renting the movie.