From Stage to Screen: A DVD Roundup
The Man Who Came to Dinner comes to DVD -- along with Kiss Me, Kate, Copenhagen, and The Car Man -- courtesy of Image Entertainment.
The Man Who Came to Dinner
Originally aired on PBS, the Roundabout Theatre Company's 2000 revival of the Kaufman and Hart classic The Man Who Came to Dinner is now available on DVD and VHS. It stars Nathan Lane as Sheridan Whiteside, a bombastic and petulant celebrity critic who injures himself by falling on the front steps of a wealthy Midwestern home during a book tour. As a result, he's marooned in the family's living room, much to his annoyance and their inconvenience -- and this makes for one hilarious play.
The original PBS showing was a live broadcast that celebrated the christening of the American Airlines Theater. As a result, we have the only thing that could be described as a "bonus feature" in this package: a series of segments hosted by Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson, occurring before the show itself begins and during the two intermission breaks of this three-act play. Included are interviews with Kaufman and Hart heirs Kitty Carlisle Hart and Anne Kaufman Schneider, background information on the play, and plenty of details about Alexander Woolcott (the real-life inspiration for The Man Who Came to Dinner).
Lane gives an excellent performance as the cruel and temperamental Whiteside, whose self-centered yet genuine love for his assistant Maggie (played by Harriet Harris, who went on to win a Tony Award for her work in Thoroughly Modern Millie) inspires him to devise all kinds of ways to keep her by his side after she's fallen for a local newspaper man whom she intends to marry. Among the generally fine, 29-member cast, tours de force are provided by Jean Smart as a self-absorbed actress, Byron Jennings as a fellow who very much recalls Noël Coward, and -- best of all -- Lewis J. Stadlen as a Marx Brothers/Jimmy Durante type who brings down the house with his antics in Act III. These performances alone would be reason enough to purchase this DVD.
Kiss Me, Kate
The Tony Award-winning revival of Kiss Me, Kate, the classic musical-within-a-musical featuring a brilliant Cole Porter score, had already come and gone from Broadway by the time its London counterpart was taped for PBS's Great Performances series, but this is the same production that was such a hit in New York. Rachel York and Brent Barrett star as Lilli Vanessi and Fred Graham, a recently split couple starring together in a tour of a musical based on The Taming of the Shrew. Nancy Anderson and Michael Berresse (reprising his role from the B'way production) co-star as Lois Lane and Bill Calhoun.
York and Barrett are very good as the bickering ex-couple; they're both funny and sexy, and they sing beautifully. Nancy Anderson is charmingly air-headed as Lois Lane. It's a pleasure to watch Berresse dance -- and to see him repeat his impressive acrobatic feat of climbing up the set during his big number, "Bianca." The members of the ensemble are talented and energetic, even if the cast boasts no real stand-outs.
Somewhat jarring is the way that Chris Hunt and Paul Aviles, who (respectively) directed and edited the production for television, chose to deal with the audience that was on hand for the taping. In The Man Who Came to Dinner, the presence of an audience is acknowledged from the very beginning; then we see them in between acts and hear their applause and laughter throughout the show. In Kate, however, the laughter seems muted. And though applause is heard after some numbers, it appears to have been edited out following others. It's one thing to dispense with the audience altogether for a taped performance, but this halfway approach is rather disconcerting for the home viewer.
Overall, the look of the production is adequate if not fantastic. Some of the dance numbers -- especially "Tom, Dick, and Harry" and "Too Darn Hot," which seemed overlong onstage -- seem even longer now, though the latter in particular is filmed very well. While this TV rendering of the show is pleasant to watch, there is nothing about it that really grabs you or makes a special impression. Still, those who were fond of the production will appreciate having a good copy of it as part of their video library.
For those who were intrigued but puzzled by Michael Frayn's 2000 Broadway drama Copenhagen, the video version may shed some light. The play centers around a conversation that took place in Copenhagen in 1941 between longtime friends and colleagues Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. Bohr, a famed physicist and a half-Jewish Dane, was a mentor of sorts to the German-born prodigy Heisenberg, and the mysterious meeting marked the end of their partnership and their friendship.
The TV film adaptation was originally aired by PBS in association with the BBC. On the DVD, author Frayn provides a welcome prologue and epilogue in which some of the hairier historical and scientific issues presented in Copenhagen are sorted out, so as to give the viewer some background and context for the play. (These segments include interviews with a physicist and with Heisenberg's children.) In case you missed Copenhagen in its Broadway and London productions, it's an intensely intellectual drama, magnificently performed here by film actors Daniel Craig (The Road to Perdition) as Heisenberg, Stephen Rea (The Crying Game) as Bohr, and Francesca Annis as Bohr's wife. The three of them enact the tense meeting in which the two men dance around the possibility that Heisenberg is working on a nuclear bomb for the Nazis.
The film was helmed by noted stage director Howard Davies. (Michael Blakemore, who also happened to direct Kiss Me, Kate on Broadway and in London, did the honors for the stage version.) Copenhagen has been given a cinematic treatment here, which has its pros and cons. On one hand, this helps smooth the extremely talky play's transfer to the visual medium. Using the actual Copenhagen as backdrop, the film employs voiceovers to communicate some of the characters' thoughts. Most of the action takes place in the Bohrs' large house -- beautifully appointed during the scenes in which Heisenberg visits with the Bohrs, eerily barren when the characters relive the memory of that meeting. On the other hand, the film is less effective than the play in some respects. For the Broadway production, a couple dozen patrons were seated on stage every night as if at a lecture, and this created a highly theatrical effect. Also, the unique "choreography" of the piece had the actors moving around each other as if to mimic atomic patterns.
Still, the Copenhagen film is beautifully written and wonderfully acted. And though the play's central question -- what transpired between these two men in their final meeting? -- has no definitive answer, this remains a fascinating treatise on physics, morality, and friendship.
The Car Man
Best known for his all-male Swan Lake, which played Broadway a few years ago to great acclaim, director-choreographer Matthew Bourne went on to give Bizet's Carmen a new spin with The Car Man. This gender-bending takeoff on the story has the seductive Carmen recast as a dangerously sexy guy named Luca who comes to a small town in the American West in the early 1960s. Taking a job as a mechanic, he soon wreaks havoc by engaging in affairs with his boss's wife and with a young man named Angelo.
Including some fairly graphic depictions of sex, this show isn't subtitled "An Auto-Erotic Thriller" for nothing. The thriller aspect comes through in Bourne's noirish version of this tale of betrayal, revenge, and murder. The choreography, an exciting mix of styles from modern to ballet, is entrancing, and Bourne has a fine cast to play out the action-packed drama. Hunky Alan Vincent brings dimension to the seductive drifter who propels the plot, and Will Kemp is outstanding in his portrayal of the sensitive Angelo.
The Car Man was directed for film by Bourne and Ross MacGibbon. Shot with no audience present, it's marked by lots of close-ups, quick cuts, and fast-paced editing. Though the presentation is exciting, one longs for a few full-stage views in order to get a look at Bourne's choreography as it was originally experienced. The DVD extras include an interview with Bourne and a photo gallery with numerous color production pix.